Semeia 35

Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament and Its Social World

John H. Elliott, ed.

Copyright © 1986 by Society of Biblical Literature.

Published in Decatur, GA.


Contributors to This Issue

Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament: More on Methods and Models

John H. Elliott

Normative Dissonance and Christian Origins

Bruce J. Malina

Grid and Group in Matthew’s Community: The Righteousness/Honor Code in the Sermon on the Mount

Leland J. White

The Idea of Purity in Mark’s Gospel

Jerome H. Neyrey

Body Language in 1 Corinthians: The Use of Anthropological Models for Understanding Paul and His Opponents

Jerome H. Neyrey

The Received View and What It Cannot Do: III John and Hospitality

Bruce J. Malina

Contributors to This Issue

John H. Elliott

University of San Francisco

Department of Theology and Religious Studies

Ignatian Heights

San Francisco, CA 94117

Bruce J. Malina

Creighton University

Department of Theology

Omaha, NE 68178

Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.

Weston School of Theology

3 Phillips Place

Cambridge, MA 02139

Leland J. White

St. John’s University (New York)

Theology Department

Grand Central and Utopia Parkways

Jamaica, NY 11439

Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament: More on Methods and Models *

John H. Elliott

University of San Francisco


Conceptual models play an essential, though often unacknowledged, role in the study of the Bible and its social context. Part one of this essay clarifies the nature and utility of models, their role in research operations, and their relation to sociological perspectives and methodological paradigms. Part two examines the strengths and limits of Gerd Theissen’s Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, its analytical models, and the bearing of its theoretical orientation on its assessment of the effects of the Jesus movement on Palestinian society.


In a paper presented at the 1979 general meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, I surveyed the growing scholarly interest in a social-scientific interpretation of the Bible commencing with the work of Gerd Theissen and proposed a method which I called “sociological exegesis” for analyzing biblical texts. Subsequently, these remarks were incorporated in A Home for the Homeless as an introduction to the presuppositions and cross-disciplinary method which I applied to the text of 1 Peter (1981: 1–20). The primary focus of this exercise in sociological exegesis was a biblical text as distinguished from a synchronic or diachronic analysis of an entire society over a period of time. Now I propose to consider some of the methodological ramifications of this broader focus of analysis through a critical discussion of Gerd Theissen’s Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (1978). As studies of the social world of early Christianity grow in number and social-scientific sophistication, it appears an appropriate time to reflect critically on the method and models employed in one of the most important contributions to this new venture in cross-disciplinary analysis.

Several things might be anticipated of any new emerging branch of research, especially a branch aimed at cross-fertilization and new results through the merger of previously isolated academic disciplines. The process can be expected to be a slow, laborious one while the practitioners gradually develop new ways of thinking, speaking and looking, new research methods and objectives, new perspectives and frames of reference, new theories and conceptual models, new vocabularies, new means for collecting and organizing data, new modes and standards of interpretation, and new more inclusive bodies of scholarly research. While the desired result might include expanded horizons, sharper insight, and more comprehensive understanding of connections and processes previously unperceived in a one dimensional, one disciplinary view, the path leading to that goal will be fraught with pitfalls, deadends, and the confusion of Babel. The maturation process will take its own sweet time. The way will, no doubt, be littered with the debris of trial and error. For a time at least there may be more heat than light. In the heat, of course, like mosquitos, breed the sceptics. Some can be expected to resist innovation on principle, or resign themselves to the kennels with the excuse that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Others may doubt the possibility or wisdom or legitimacy of the mixed marriage. Still others, like Juvenal of old, may resent an attempt at disciplinary syncretism and regard the influx of new concepts and terminology into exegesis as a sad recurrence of Orontes’ garbage flowing into the Tiber.

I, for one, don’t share this jaundiced view of the exegetical-sociological marriage, though I am sympathetic to the caveats and even the catcalls of its critics. The social-scientific study of the Bible and its social world, even at this infantile stage of its development, has an impressive track record. It has stretched our personal and scientific horizons, alerted us to the limitations of our received exegetical wisdom, sharpened our perception and deepened our understanding of early Christian texts as media of social interaction. It has developed our awareness of behavioral patterns, pivotal values, social structures, cultural scripts, and social processes of the biblical world, the world within which and from which our sacred traditions draw their vitality and meaning. Such a contribution, notwithstanding, there is still much self-critical and self-corrective work yet to be done. In this spirit I set about the goal of this paper.

A consideration of models will involve us with several related issues concerning method in general. Models play a key role in social-scientific analysis. In order to discuss and illustrate their use and utility, however, it will be necessary first to define terms, since “model,” like the term “paradigm,” is a current buzzword subject to such indiscriminate use that it often introduces more confusion than clarity. In this process of definition, I shall propose a set of terms which will identify and demarcate various dimensions and levels of social-scientific analysis. Proceding then to a consideration of the use of models, I shall attempt to show how conceptual models in particular provide a more systematic means for organizing the material and evaluating the conclusions drawn by Gerd Theissen in his pioneering study, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. In general, the paper aims at clarification and self-critique as we proceed in the elaboration and refinement of a cross-disciplinary method for studying the Bible and its world.

1.    Models and Their Role within the Process of Social-Scientific Research

In common parlance the term “model” is regularly associated with, or used as a synonym for, a wide variety of words such as “metaphor,” “example,” “exemplar,” “analogy,” “image,” “type,” “reproduction,” “representation,” “illustration,” “pattern,” “parallel,” “symbol,” or “paradigm.” Common to these terms, very broadly speaking, is their use in denoting similarities among properties for the purpose of clarification through comparison; that is, presenting the less well known in terms of the more well known. Such undifferentiated common parlance, however, presents a problem when scientific rigor requires terminological clarity and precision. Since a cross-disciplinary exegesis with its recurrent references to old and new paradigms, methodological and conceptual models, cultural analogues, and biblical images and parallels, is particularly vulnerable to this problem of terminological confusion, it is obviously urgent that we set about clarifying our terms.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that models themselves come in different sorts and sizes and dot the scenery of everyday life, from the maps in our glove compartments and globes in our studies, to the mannequins and toy trains in our department stores, to the scale models of art and architecture, to the experimental and ana lytical models employed in the various fields of science. Thus models can range in size, complexity, and degree of abstraction from concrete scale models to highly abstract conceptual or theoretical models. The sizeable body of literature on scientific model-theory and model-building already at hand deals with such questions as model definition, classification, and use as well as with the implications of the overlap of model, metaphor and archetype at higher levels of theoretical abstraction. For clarification of model use in the social-scientific study of the Bible and its social world I have found the following works particularly enlightening: T.F. Carney, The Shape of the Past: Models and Antiquity (1975); Bruce Malina, The New Testament World (1981); Max Black, Models and Metaphors (1962); Ian G. Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms (1974); and, on the use of conceptual models in social-scientific research and social ethics, the highly recommendable study of Matilda White Riley, Sociological Research (1963), Gibson Winter, Elements for a Social Ethic (1966) and Jacques Richardson (ed.), Models of Reality (1984).

For the purpose of sociological-exegetical study, then, what is the nature and utility of models and where do they fit in the methodological schema of analysis and interpretation? Put simply, a model is like a metaphor. Both model and metaphor compare similar properties and stimulate imagination in order to advance understanding from the more well known to less well known. But this is too simply put, for a model differs from a metaphor in terms of its comprehensiveness and complexity and often its intended function. Thus, in Barbour’s words (1974:6), “a model is a symbolic representation of selected aspects of the behavior of a complex system for particular purposes.” Bruce Malina (1983:231) offers a still more comprehensive definition: “a model is an abstract, simplified representation of some real world object, event, or interaction constructed for the purpose of understanding, control, or prediction.” Models, furthermore, as Carney notes (1975:7), are selective representations which focus attention on major components of interest and their priority of importance. Thus, as Carney further explains (1975:8), “a model is something less than a theory and something more than an analogy … A theory is based on axiomatic laws and states gen eral principles. It is a basic proposition through which a variety of observations or statements become explicable. A model, by way of contrast, acts as a link between theories and observations. A model will employ one or more theories to provide a simplified (or an experimental or a generalized or an explanatory) framework which can be brought to bear on some pertinent data.” Models are thus conceptual vehicles for articulating, applying, testing, and possibly reconstructing theories used in the analysis and interpretation of specific social data. The difference between a model and an analogy or metaphor lies in the fact that the model is consciously structured and systematically arranged in order to serve as a speculative instrument for the purpose of organizing, profiling, and interpreting a complex welter of detail.

Models are variously classified (Richardson 1984:1–18). Carney (1975:9–11) makes a basic distinction between isomorphic and homomorphic models. Isomorphic models are built to scale such as a globe in geography; their purpose is to replicate as many features as possible of the original. Homomorphic models, on the other hand, are cast in abstract terms and reproduce only selected gross features of the original which itself is often an abstraction such as a social system, a bureaucratic form of government or a kin group. Conceptual models are a major subset of such homomorphic models and are the models with which social science is most concerned. While it may be customary to conceive of society in mechanical, organic, or ecological terms, these are in fact, according to Carney (1975:11–12), only vague, unsystematized comparisons or analogies laden with implicit assumptions and incapable of being transformed into vehicles of analysis. Models, by contrast, are deliberately structured, and specific in their design and focus, so as to represent scientific social properties and their relationships. Models on the whole, be they concrete or abstract, are part of the human process of perception and understanding. All perception is selective and constrained psychologically and socially; for no mortal enjoys the gift of “immaculate perception” (Carney, 1975:1). Models of whatever size and complexity are, in Carney’s words, types of “cognitive maps” employed consciously or unconsciously to categorize, compare, generalize and synthesize the mass of data we have selectively admitted through our cognitive filter. Models are the media by which we establish the meaning of what we allow ourselves to see. In the social sciences models are used to analyze and interpret the properties of social behavior, social structures and social pro cesses. From observation and then generalization about the regularities perceived in human behavior, concepts and theories are formed to account for such regularities and patterns of interrelated properties. All human beings, on the basis of their personal experience and diverse sources of knowledge, have certain perceptions of, and general theories concerning, the nature, structure and meaning of social reality. The purpose of models in the social sciences is to explicitly express these theories and test their validity.

Thus, a basic fact about models is that there is no choice as to whether or not we use them. “Our choice,” notes Carney, “rather lies in deciding whether to use them consciously or unconsciously” (1975:5). For scientific work which presumes standards of accountability and evaluation this point is a crucial one. Here, where the aim is to apply theory to the observation and interpretation of data, the function of conceptual models is to consciously, deliberately explicate the theories involved in one’s research so that these theories and all the presuppositions they involve can be tested and thus confirmed, disproved, modified or discarded. Though this procedure may be a commonplace in other sciences, theology and exegesis have often failed to follow suit. Instead, as Malina has pointed out (1983:239–40), our study of the Bible and its world is still dominated by vague implicit models and scholarly intuition. The result: theory proliferation and inconclusive “conclusions” inaccessible to testing and validation. Later on we will consider a concrete instance where explicit models can be of use in analysing Palestinian society and evaluating Theissen’s explanation of the origin of the Jesus movement. Before leaving this part of our discussion of models in general, however, I want to make one final point about the relation of models to other levels and features of the research enterprise.

In sociological research conceptual models are used to select and apply certain theories for the investigation and interpretation of social phenomena. “A conceptual model,” explains Matilda White Riley in her introduction to the method and process of sociological research “is the researcher’s image of the phenomena in the real world that he wants to study”; that is, certain aspects of the behavior of human beings in collectivities (1963:7). The model should consist of clearly formulated ideas or theories about (1) these human beings in collectivities, (2) these aspects or properties of behavior, and (3) the ways these aspects fit together and affect each other. Models vary according to their focus of attention which can range from the study of individuals in roles to dyadic relationships to subgroups to higher level collectivities such as groups or macrosocial systems. Models vary, furthermore, not only according to the nature and scope of the data to be studied but also according to the theories preferred by certain researchers and schools of thought. Jonathan H. Turner, in his splendid introduction to the major types of sociological theorizing, namely structural functionalism, conflict theory, exchange theory, symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, and ethnomethodology, identifies these various types of theorizing as “theoretical perspectives” (1978:13–14). Encompassing these various theoretical perspectives at a still more inclusive level is what Thomas Kuhn has called the prevailing “paradigm” of a research community: its tradition transmitted through historical exemplars, and a corpus of scientific work that embodies a set of conceptual, methodological and metaphysical assumptions, commitments and values.12 Given the current confusion in our non-standardized use of popular cross-disciplinary jargon, the employment of and adherence to this set of distinguishing terms, I suggest, would contribute to greater clarity and precision. Thus, in contrast to Malina and instead following Turner, I think it preferable to identify the sociological orientations of structural-functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and other styles of theorizing as “theoretical perspectives” rather than “models.” These persepctives are not themselves models, they rather determine the models used through preference for certain theories and research objectives. The distinction is an important one not only for appreciating how theory determines the choice and construction of models but also for understanding the distinctive characteristics of varying sociological schools of thought, their presuppositions and interests and their particular contributions and limitations. “Models” are tools for transforming theories into research operations. “Perspectives” are more encompassing ways or “styles”14 of theorizing. And “paradigms” refer to the traditions, presuppositions, and methods of a discipline as a whole. For a parallel in the field of exegesis, the prevailing contemporary paradigm is the so-called historical-critical method. Within this paradigm there are, for instance, different perspectives concerning Gospel source theory, and styles of theorizing about Gospel relationships. According to these varying perspectives or theoretical styles, different models are used for construing and interpreting synoptic properties and relationships (e.g. Synoptic textual parallels; two or four source models). Such a distinction between paradigm, perspective, theory and model will be of use not only for discussing and using models but also, on a larger scale, for facilitating cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration.

Conceptual models in the social sciences make explicit those assumptions which the researcher has concerning the social world and its meanings. In social scientific research they serve as heuristic devices for investigating, organizing and explaining social data and their meaning. Thus they play an indispensable role in the formal research process and the hermeneutical circle which moves back and forth in empirical and interpretive phases between the fields of sociological theory and concrete social phenomena. Selecting and articulating certain theories about the nature and relationships of aspects of these phenomena, the model shapes research objectives, the kinds of data to be gathered, and the way in which these data are to be assembled and interpreted.

Riley, who offers an extensive description of such models and the roles they play in the research process, notes that models may serve two main types of research objectives, one which is exploratory in nature and one which aims at testing certain hypotheses. Exploration is undertaken when the model is vague or incomplete so that more information about the social system is required first to fill out the model. She refers to this as the “descriptive” approach and it is without doubt the approach most familiar to historians and exegetes. In our bailiwick we refer to it as “social description” and for many this seems to imply an approach which is more objective and less theory laden than one which aims at testing certain hypotheses set out in advance. In fact, however, the difference is one of degree, not kind. Both objectives are generated by conceptual models which embody theories. Hypothesis-testing simply operates with more highly defined and articulated theories, whereas in exploration and description the model remains skeletal and the theory it embodies, less explicit.

“Exploratory studies,” Riley advises (1963:68), “are not to be confused with raw empiricism, with fact-gathering that is unrelated to sociological theory.” However a researcher might claim to be working inductively from all the facts, “no observer can ever perceive and report all the ‘raw data’. Researchers are always forced to select from the universe of phenomena and “this selection tends to reflect the theory he has in mind, the kinds of assumptions which are implicit, if not explicit, in the original conceptual model.” Thus “social description” is no safe haven for exegetes and historians leary of theory or murky about models. While such exploration of the foreign world of the Bible certainly must continue, it cannot and will not proceed without models as guides. The question which remains is how productive the expedition will be if the explorers cannot or will not say why they went, how they saw, why they collected what they did, and what the trophies tell us of the culture of that foreign world.

The utility of particular models is measured by the degree to which they clarify and explicate the theories and assumptions of the researcher, on the one hand, and, on the other, by the degree of their interpretive power; that is, their ability to reveal and explain the properties and relationships of social behavior, social structures, and social processes. The choice of models, in turn, is determined by the types of social phenomena to be analyzed and explained and by the theories which the researcher holds concerning the nature, interrelationships, and importance of these phenomena. Particular styles of theorizing, in turn, characterize different perspectives or orientations within the sociological field and this accounts for the preferences and use of different types of models. These perspectives, finally, derive from the current paradigm(s) operative within the sociological enterprise as a whole.

II.    Models and Method in Theissen’s Sociology: A Preliminary Critique

Let us shift now from description to application. In order to consider the utility of models for the social-scientific study of the Bible and the biblical world, let us focus on a major, indeed pioneering, work of recent vintage, Gerd Theissen’s Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. What I propose to show is, first, how two types of conceptual models help organize and clarify the abundant data presented by Theissen; and, second, how, in this process of clarification, they indicate some of the strengths and limits of Theissen’s work. Third, this analysis will also uncover certain implicit assumptions related to Theiseen’s theoretical perspective and will show how these assumptions have influenced—I would say skewed—his analysis and conclusions.

At the outset let me affirm the great innovative character of Theissen’s research which extends well beyond his study of Palestinian Christianity. We all stand in his debt. The importance of pioneering studies lies not so much in their elegance or sophistication as in the sheer power and effect of their breaking new ground, of imaginatively and boldly advancing where no one else before has trod. The initial path forged might not be straight or tidy, but a path it is indeed, a breakthrough, a way clear enough for others to follow. Theissen has macheted his way through a jungle and has constructed a set of Rube-Goldberg bridges. He has forged a path leading to fresh sources of water. It now remains for others to clear away the foliage and debris, straighten that path, improve the bridges, and lay the macadam. Such is the task before us. Whatever the criticisms to be made, they are meant solely as constructive ones intended to advance the course which Theissen himself has helped to inaugurate. On the assumption that his book is now well known enough not to require an extensive preliminary description, I shall turn directly to its substance and the matter of models.

Theissen’s study encompasses three chief related issues: (1) the emergence of Christianity as a renewal movement within first century Palestinian society and the specific roles assumed within this movement; (2) the social factors which shaped the behavior and outlook of this and other groups in Palestine; and (3) the effect of the Jesus movement upon this society and the subsequent course of its history beyond Palestine. His aim is “to describe typical social attitudes and behavior within the Jesus movement and to analyze its interaction with Jewish society in Palestine generally” (p. 1). The breadth and complexity of such an undertaking mark both the contributions and limitations of his study. On the one hand, in relatively brief space he has sketched out a cross-disciplinary method and demonstrated its contribution to exegetical and historical research. Through a social-scientific analysis of a wide range of textual data he has uncovered important latent patterns of social structure, behavior, and areas of tension implicit in the sources. He has shown how a systemic analysis of Palestinian society reveals a configuration of conditions and forces that influenced the perceptions, attitudes, collective behavior and alliances of various groups within this society. He has pointed out the variety of social strategies and has suggested a way of comparitively analyzing them. And, among many things more, he has demonstrated how religious symbols and traditions help define social roles, values, and norms and has discussed the part these cultural symbols themselves play in the conflict of competing ideologies. As a consequence Theissen presents us with a much clearer picture of the Jesus movement as a social phenomenon, the conditions of its emergence, the contours of its response to the Palestinian crisis, and the coherence of its religious beliefs and patterns of behavior.

On the other hand, as our eyes blink at the novelty and enormity of this venture, we have to wonder whether too much has been attempted in too brief a space. To the sociologically uninitiated this is all a bit mystifying and overwhelming, not simply in its conceptualization, approach and detail but especially in what is left unsaid and unclarified about the theories with which he operates. One would wish, among other things, that Theissen had clarified his conceptual models and theories and made them explicit.

Item:    Theissen’s selection and classification of data regarding social “roles,” “factors,” and “functions” imply an organizing theoretical framework, but he never reveals what that is. His interest in the “function” of religion and of the Jesus movement in particular reveals his structural-functional sociological perspective, but he nowhere explains this perspective in detail, or why he prefers it to conflict theory.

Item:    While he specifies certain aspects of his conceptual model (again, roles, factors, and functions) he fails to clarify why these three aspects are of cardinal importance and precisely how they are interrelated.

Item:    Theissen leads off with a discussion of roles within the Jesus movement, even though from the following section of the study it becomes clear that the peculiar roles in the movement were so influenced and shaped by external social conditions that they cannot be comprehended without a prior appreciation of these social conditions in general. These related roles of wandering charismatics and local resident sympathizers embody values in conflict with the values of elements of the larger society. The peculiarity of these values and roles and their selective affinity with the religious symbol of the Son of Man become clear only when the social process within which they emerged is first clarified. Why then did Theissen commence with a comment on roles and sym bols? An explicit model might have made that clear, or possibly even prevented a putting the cart before the horse.

Item:    Theissen’s treatment of economic, ecological, political, and cultural aspects of Palestinian society is excellent but limited. An explicated model could have clarified at least two things Theissen neglected to tell us. (1) Why are precisely these four factors so important and how can we be sure that this is not an anachronistic and ethnocentric modern categorization of data which possibly distorts the features and relationships of preindustrial agrarian social life? (2) Are there any unexpressed implications to the sequence he chooses in discussing these factors; i.e. first economic factors, then ecological, political and cultural factors? Later I will return to this issue. These factors, moreover, describe vital areas of the total Palestinian social system. But an overall picture of this system and the precise relationship of its component parts is lost or obscured in a welter of prose. A diagrammatical model of this system would have made things much clearer.

Item:    From the outset Theissen identifies earliest Christianity as a “renewal movement” within Judaism (1978:1 and passim). But he never defines or describes what a renewal movement is, what data justify such classification, and what the implications of this classification are for analysis and interpretation of the movement’s behavior in Palestinian society. Instead this must be inferred from his conclusion about the frustrated reconciling function of the Jesus movement in Palestine.

Item:    Throughout his study Theissen repeatedly makes instructive comparisons and contrasts between the Jesus movement and other contemporary interest groups or what he calls “analogues.” Again, however, the significance of these numerous comparisons and contrasts is lost in a welter of words. A diagrammatic model setting out the salient variables would have contributed much to clarity and comprehension. Moreover, it would have provided an instrument for evaluating Theissen’s conclusions concerning the peculiar properties, strategies, and effects of the Jesus movement-group.

In sum, the brevity of Theissen’s study and the implications of his working models leave many questions unanswered, impede a proper understanding and critique of his work, and make it difficult for others to emulate or reproduce his research process. Small wonder then that readers and reviewers often respond to this important study with only an assortment of general impressions or with criticism based predominantly on personal intuition.

With the aim of moving beyond this state of affairs toward a more precise appreciation and assessment of Theissen’s work, I shall discuss two specific models useful for this purpose.

In his study The Shape of the Past Carney identifies and illustrates five main types of conceptual models useful for the study of antiquity. The first model I shall discuss is an example of what Carney calls a “cross-cultural model.” Such a model uses available historical and social data to construct a general outline of an institution or a whole society, in our case Palestinian society, its chief sub-systems and the pattern of their interrelationships. Its purpose is to represent the major components of a total social system, to facilitate understanding of the relation of social structures and processes, to enable comparisons and contrasts across cultures and periods, to control and eliminate erroneous, culture-based assumptions of researchers, and to provide a framework for interpretation and the gathering of still further data.

While attempting to organize and analyze the information in Theissen’s chapter on Palestinian social factors, I constructed a model which I subsquently discovered bore close similarity to such a cross-cultural model already outlined by Carney. The model in Figure 1 is a composite which in its detail and design draws on a variety of sources including Theissen, Carney, and material contained in Gideon Sjoberg’s The Preindustrial City (1960) and the Lenskis’ discussion of agrarian societies in their macrosociological introduction, Human Societies (1974:207–62). (Figure 1, p. 14).

Our other model represents what Carney calls a “multivariate or matrix model” (1975:24–34). Such a model consists of a tabular correlation of variables for the purpose of comparative analysis. Here a mass of data pertaining to a variety of comparable entities is substructured into analytic categories for the purpose of representing and comparing alternate configurations of data and revealing complex patterns in relatively simple outline form. In our case such a matrix is useful for comparing and contrasting the different interest groups in first century Palestine, their particular features, formations, locations, interests, strategies and ideologies. This is a model which I have developed in order to make the material presented by Theissen more accessible to students using his book (Figure 2, see below).

Carney has described the features and utility of the cross-cultural model (Figure 1) in great detail, including the historical and social data upon which its design is based (1975:45–281). Therefore we can concentrate on its utility in clarifying Theisson’s theory and method in analyzing first century Palestinian society. His categorization of information


Figure 1. A Systemic Model for Analyzing Palestinian Society (after Carney, 1975)

into economic, ecological, political and cultural factors makes it apparent that Theisson has proceeded with something like this model in mind. His brief comments on method, moreover, indicate at least some of the theory underlying its design (1978:31–32). Some supplementary clarification, however, is still in order.

(1).    Underlying this model is the sociological assumption that the emergence of the Jesus movement-group is comprehensible only in terms of the entire social reality of which it was a part, by which it was shaped, and to which it was a particular response. Thus any restriction of analysis and interpretation of this movement to exegetical and theological issues alone or to interesting but isolated historical detail and hypothetical singular causes and effects is reductionistic and will fail to be able to account for the totality and complex interrelationship of factors bearing on the emergence, attitudes, behavior, interests and ideology of this movement-group.

(2).    Investigation of this total social reality requires a systemic analysis of the social system in its totality, including information on its major sub-systems (economic, social, political and cultural); its internal structuration, values, norms, roles, institutions and social processes; the conditions established by the natural environment and preceding sociohistorical events; and the impact of forces external to that system, including Palestine’s control by Rome, infiltration by Hellenism, technological innovations, and natural phenomena such as famines, earthquakes and other catastrophes. Thus the model is conceived not as a static arrangement of rigid boxes and connections as in a photograph or an Erector set construction, but as a flexible spider’s web or interconnected set of rubber bands whose sectors will all move and stretch together as result of internal and external forces. The arrows in this model and their varying width thus represent the varying degrees of connection and mutual influence.

(3).    The flexible, interconnected sectors of our model represent the chief component elements of preindustrial, agrarian societies and their dynamic interrelationship. The model provides a framework for seeking and organizing pertinent social data and examining the nature, mode and consequences of their interrelationship. In addition, the model allows for cross-cultural comparison with other similar cultures in different places and periods, thereby enabling expansion of the data base assembled by Theissen and others and also furthering detection of properties peculiar to the Palestinian scene. Thus the model explicates the broad social contours within which, and the network of social factors according to which, the Jesus movement-group and related social phenomena are to be analyzed. Though Theissen may have been working with such a model, this diagram helps us better visualise just what that model was. It articulates his categorization of social factors, helps us trace the interconnections which he has described, and it gives us a schema for seeking, organizing, and interpreting additional data. By so clarifying Theissen’s apparent model we are in a better position to follow and reproduce his method and also subject his theory and conclusions to more systematic evaluation.

Let me expand just a bit on this point. First, in neither the model nor Theissen’s treatment does one find a category labelled “religion.” While Theissen has not discussed the matter, its absence from the model reflects the social-scientific theory that in Palestinian pre-industrial society, in contrast to modern industrial society, there was no independent religious sector with its independent institutions, organizations, and social activities. In first century Palestine, religion was instead embedded within all sectors of the system as a whole. This model explicitly expresses this theory and thereby helps modern researchers avoid distortion of the ancient data and the culture it represents by forcing it into an anachronistic and ethnocentric procrustean bed. To detect and understand religious phenomena in the ancient world it is necessary to analyze the totality of social and cultural phenomena and the manner in which symbols considered sacred permeate and affect the flow of the totality of social life. Thus in our model religious phenomena will be represented in all sectors of the diagram and the task of the researcher will be to discover how they shape and are shaped by the perceptions, moods, conflicting interests, values, norms, social arrangements and processes of the social system as a whole.

Second, as previously mentioned, in his discussion of the various factors characterizing the condition of Palestinian society, Theissen first examines economic factors and then ecological, political and cultural factors. Although he doesn’t state his reason for this sequence, I consider it an appropriate one. It is reflected in our model which represents the theory that societal super-structure consisting of politics, belief systems, ideologies and culture is based upon, and radically influenced by, economic modes and relations of production and consumption and their accompanying social arrangements. Viewed from bottom to top, this model represents this theory concerning the relation of superstructure to infrastructure and calls for an approach, like the one Theissen took, which analyzes as of first importance the material basis and economic relations of Palestinian life, then related social arrangements of collective activity, and then its modes of political control and symbolic representation. This theory, however, is the subject of much debate. If his process of analysis actually reflects this theory, then Theissen should have clarified this aspect of his conceptual model so that this debate could be joined. Our model, in any case, makes the theory explicit and thus obligates its users or critics to take this issue of infrastructure and superstructure relationship into conscious account.

Third, through the use of something like this conceptual model, Theissen has assembled a vast array of data revealing stress points and tensions which had a critical bearing on the activities, aims and effects of the Jesus movement. “Wherever we look,” he writes in summary, “we find deep-rooted tensions, tensions between productive groups and those who enjoy the profit, between city and country, between alien and native structures of government, between Hellenistic and Jewish culture. This is the situation from within which the Jesus movement emerged, and it was partly conditioned by these tensions, while at the same time having its own effect on them” (1978:94).

Now while our large-scale societal model is useful for locating economic, social, political, and cultural symptoms of such conflict and tension throughout the system, its very capacity as a large-scale model limits its utility for analyzing particularised areas and aspects of conflict within the system. Since, as Theissen has shown, the Palestinian crisis involved conflicts of interests, values, norms and ideology among competing groups, we require another more nuanced model specifically designed to compare and contrast the features and positions of these groups. A further requirement in this connection, as Theissen has also noted, (1978:94), is a sociological theory of conflict. In both these regards Theissen’s work calls for further clarification and critique. In the former case he presents us with a wealth of comparable data but not an explicit model for their comparative analysis. In the latter, his preference for a functionalist theory of conflict leads to some questionable conclusions regarding the aim and effect of the Jesus movement in Palestine. Once again an explicit model seems called for.


Figure 2. A Multivariate Matrix Model for Comparing Palestine Interest Groups

Our second model (Figure 2), a multivariate or matrix model in Carney’s terms, is designed to facilitate a more systematic comparison of the various interest groups which Theissen has discussed. Across the top of the model’s grid I have listed from politically-radical left to politically-conservative right the main interest groups—not “parties” or “sects” but specifically groups with distinctive interests—which play key roles in the Palestinian social drama as described by Theissen and others. Theissen customarily discusses most of them as “analogues” for comparison with the Jesus movement. Down the left hand side of the grid are listed various categories for organizing the data asembled by Theissen or available from other sources—sub-sets of socio-economic factors, political-legal factors, and cultural-ideological factors. Figure 2 is only a reduced replica of the model I use for research and instructional purposes. For a sense of the original on which data are actually written, imagine a model thrice its size in length and width with the possibility of unlimited expansion. Once again, the purpose of such a matrix model is to organize a mass of comparable data so as to facilitate systematized comparative analysis. This model and the data it categorizes provides a general overview of the information which Theissen compares. It clarifies the spectrum and interrelation of interest groups under consideration; it states and categorizes the available or desirable types of detail concerning these groups; it reveals points on the grid where information is abundant or thin, thereby indicating the selective screens in the the originial or secondary sources; it allows for a more comprehensive and systematic comparison of the data and detection of unanticipated patterns among the variables; and it provides a basis for constructing comparative social profiles of each of the particular interest groups. Thus it serves as a comprehensive instrument for following the comparisons which Theissen has made and for evaluating his conclusions regarding the specific aim and function of the Jesus movement-group in particular.

Viewing the data through the lens of such a matrix confirms Theissen’s general observation regarding the societal pervasiveness of friction, tension, and conflict. For Theissen such a general observation seems sufficient stimulus for turning to a functionalist theory of conflict to help explain how the Jesus movement succeeded or rather did not succeed in overcoming conflict in Palestine. Use of such a matrix, however, also facilitates more specific observations about the nature of this conflict, from the broad social forces at work to the specific nerve centers and focal points of this social crisis. In general terms this crisis was a product of the political domination, economic exploitation, and social destabilization of Palestine by Rome, on the one hand, coupled, on the other hand, with diversified strategies of domestic interest groups to maintain and expand their bases of power and legitimacy. The situation in which earliest Christianity emerged was not simply rife with tension, as Theissen proposes; it was a situation created by conflict over power and the grossly imbalanced and alienating allocation of goods and resources (economic, social, and cultural), a situation strained by the struggle over self-interests, values, ideologies and principles of freedom, equality and justice.

Although Theissen himself notes evidence indicating the critical stance of Jesus vis-a-vis this power struggle and its focal points, such as Jesus’ position on tribute payment, economic exploitation, dehumanizing and alienating social institutions, and his critique of temple management and Torah manipulation, Theissen’s theory regarding the aim of the movement fails to take such observations into account. Patterns in the evidence brought to light by the matrix, furthermore, reveal how the temple was a focal point of tension (political, economic, social, cultural and ideological). From the Antonia the Romans guarded and controlled the temple; the Herodians built it and used this to shore up their disputed legitimacy; the aristocratic Sadducees and elders exploited it; the Pharisees coopted it by extending temple purity to bed and board; the Baptist movement avoided it; the Jesus movement confronted its corruption; the Qumranites replaced it with their own temple community; and the rebels eventually gave their lives seeking to defend and control it. The temple was the locus of power and focus of protest. Moreover, the matrix clarifies both the similarities and contrasts in group interests, strategies, and alliances. Rome the patron controlled Herodian and Sadducean clients and exercised power through puppet princes and priests; the latter cooperated and were coopted. The strategy of the Pharisees on the other hand was one of social insulation; that of the Baptist and Qumran communities, one of vicinal isolation; that of the Jesus movement, a contrasting strategy of incorporation; and that of the rebels, insurrection. Central to the ideological struggle over group legitimation were the purity arrangements and social-economic demarcations linked with Temple and Torah. And this was the focus of the Jesus movement’s critique.

Such evidence seems to get lost in Theissen’s generalizing conclusions about tension and aggression and the purely reconciling aim of the Jesus movement. (1978:97–119) As a result Jesus the critic becomes Jesus the victim without sufficient attention to the political and social interests which that victimization served (see John 11:45–53). At this point, however, it is clear that more is involved here than an implicit model. Indeed, as Theissen himself has indicated, (1978:94–95, 97–119) he prefers to interpret evidence of such conflict from the sociological perspective of functionalist theory. This perspective regards tension and conflict in the social system akin to a debilitating virus or destabilizing agent which jeopardizes the proper functioning of the social body and upsets its equilibrium. Accordingly, this leads him to consider various ways by which the Jesus movement might have “functioned” to restore this equilibrium by overcoming or absorbing destructive expressions of aggression. His unhappy conclusion: given the overheated and feverish state of the Palestinian social system, the Jesus movement failed to eliminate the fever or keep the lid on the boiling social pot.

Early Christian evidence in the New Testament indicates, however, that the Jesus movement related not so much to the needs of the system as to the needs of the people, particularly the displaced, dispossessed and marginalized. Its own interests and activities focused not on saving the system but those trapped and crushed by the system. Any adequate sociological perspective on early Christianity requires theory and models which account for the totality of this data. No interest in the social system as a whole should be allowed to divert attention from the particular problems, purposes, and ideals of the human actors and collectivities within that system.

Underlying Theissen’s conclusion regarding the failure of the Jesus movement in Palestine are three links in a theoretical chain of assumptions which require closer scrutiny. First, Theissen assumes that the Jesus movement is to be viewed on the model of a “renewal movement” whose aim was to overcome the manifold tensions of Palestinian society (1, 95, 97–98). Secondly, it is assumed that sociological functionalist analysis is the appropriate tool for examining and asssessing the relation of the movement to “the objective, basic aims of the society” as a whole (98). Third, it is assumed that a psychological theory concerning forms of “containing and overcoming aggression” is useful for analyzing and evaluating the strategy and effects of the movement. All three assumptions, however, are open to challenge.

First, no definition or description of a “renewal movement” is offered. Nor is it shown how the Jesus movement fits this type of social phenomenon, or how this model illuminates its salient features. In actuality, Theissen’s own observations concerning the roles and internal structure of the Jesus movement cast serious doubt on any aim it might have had to renew or reform the general society. Its ethical radicalism and eschatological expections marked it as a movement of “outsiders” (15). “The more they detatched themselves from this world in their everyday actions, the more they kept destroying this world in their mythical fantasies, as if they had to work off their rejection by this world” (15–16). Between this depiction of a world-renouncing movement (Part One of Theissen’s study) on the one hand and its supposed concern for societal renewal on the other (part Three) is a tension left unresolved. Renunciation and renewal constitute different attitudes and goals; they involve different perceptions of society and of the possibility of reform and different strategies of social interaction. Theissen has failed to show that a world-renouncing movement of the marginalized could possibly have aimed at the renewal of Palestinian society in its totality. On what basis, then, can it be judged to have failed in the achievement of this as yet undemonstrated aim?

Second, although Theissen grants that “theories of conflict … clearly fit better into an analysis of the Jesus movement” and the deep-rooted tensions of its society (94), the actual theoretical perspective which he employs in his analysis is that of structural functionalism. This sociological perspective focuses on the structure and operations of a social system in its entirety and the manner in which entities within the system “function” to serve the system in meeting its supposed basic “needs” of system maintenance, integration, goal attainment, and adaptation to changing conditions. The strength of such a perspective is the attention it gives to the social system as a whole and the interrelated activity of its parts. It also, however, involves certain questionable assumptions which are likewise evident in Theissen’s analysis. For one thing, it is assumed that the system as a whole was certain needs and goals as distinct from the needs or the goals of the individuals and groups within the system. Thus it runs the risk of illegitimately reifying the social system, and attributing to it certain requisites and purposes, which in turn are claimed to cause the processes and structures “necessary” for meeting these needs and goals.

This tendency toward reification and tautological argumentation is one of the most vulnerable and contested aspects of functional theorization (Turner 1978: 104–115) and marks a weakness of Theissen’s analysis as well. He writes (98): “When a society is involved in a crisis, its chief concern is to overcome and reduce the tensions within itself. It has to consider questions like: should the tensions be increased to the point of rebellion? Is it necessary to provide opportunities for letting off steam? Is there a need for compromise? Faced with a crisis, every society attempts different solutions.” But where is this “mind” of society located and who speaks for society as a whole? Who asks these questions and contemplates alternative solutions? Thinking of a society in this fashion confuses an abstract sociological concept with a concrete entity greater than its parts, an entity invested with needs, concerns, and goals. It also deflects attention away from the very concrete needs and interests of contending Palestinian factions and the conditions and causes of the Palestinian crisis—issues so admirably analyzed in the second major part of the study. Now suddenly the well-being of Palestinian society as a whole is postulated as the chief issue of sociological concern and the Jesus movement is analyzed in terms of its “function” in contributing toward societal equilibrium.

When the maintenance and stability of the social system is considered of preeminent importance, as in the case of Theissen’s functionalist perspective, internal conflict tends to be viewed as a destabilizing and destructive process which must be overcome and eliminated for the good of the system. Accordingly, Theissen then hypothesizes various ways by which the Jesus movement “functioned” to maintain and integrate Palestinian society. Psychological theory is enlisted to conceptualize and analyze four ways by which the Jesus movement attempted to contain aggression through compensation, transference, reversal, and symbolization (99–110). Attribution of the psychological properties of individuals to groups or other collectivities, however, is an invalid procedure and constitutes a methodological fallacy.

This represents the third weak link in Theissen’s chain of assumptions. His conceptual model of aggression containment is derived from psychological theory and is appropriate for the study of individual personality and behavior. Attribution of the psychological properties of individuals to groups or other collectivities, however, is an invalid procedure. Such a use of a psychological model to explain a social phenomenon is an example of the so-called “aggregative fallacy” in which a model of individual characteristics is erroneously used to explain group or social properties (Riley 1963: 704–706). At this important point in his analysis Theissen’s psychological model fails to fit and explain the object of his study, namely, the Jesus movement as a social phenomenon.

In sum, I find that Theissen’s functionalist preoccupation with the issue of societal stability and the elimination of tension has distracted attention from other questions raised by the data he discussed earlier. These are issues concerning the conditions, causes, and consequences of the Palestinian conflict. They involve features of social inequality and injustice which led some groups, including the Jesus movement, to call for changes in that system, its economic and social arrangements, and the exercise and symbolization of power. Another sociological perspective, that of conflict theory, focuses on such matters as the dynamics of social process, the conditions and consequences of conflict and the competing personal values and needs at stake in struggles over power, its exercise and its perceived legitimacy. This makes it, in my opinion, a more promising perspective from which to analyze and interpret the subject matter of Theissen’s study and the ethical aims and activities of the Jesus movement in particular. It would provide us with a body of theory specifically designed to examine conflict, the very phenomenon which Theissen himself has found to be of paramount importance. And in place of speculation concerning the function of the Jesus movement in maintaining a Palestinian society in crisis, it would enable the exploration of the actual strategy as well as aims of the Jesus movement in confronting and changing the underlying causes of the crisis and thereby provoking conflict rather than containing it. From Theissen’s functionalist perspective, the Jesus movement must be judged a failure in Palestine because it failed to contain aggression. Would a different perspective on the facts lead to a different verdict? The last word surely has not yet been spoken.


There is much more which could, and no doubt eventually will, be said about this fresh approach to the study of Christian origins and the new set of methodological issues it has brought to light. The bane as well as the blessing of such brief pioneering ventures is that they condense so much in so modest a package. Their implications are often even richer and more provocative than their explications. My concern here has been to identify and examine some of the social-scientific theory implicit in Theissen’s work. In general the aim of this essay has been to clarify the role and utility of conceptual models in social-scientific intepretation of the Bible and its social world; to propose a set of terms which serve future practitioners in specifying our points of reference and level of research operations; to illustrate two specific types of models useful for the socialscientific analysis of Palestinian Christianity; to show the advantages of making our conceptual models of social life explicit and thus acknowledging and exposing to criticism our sociological as well as theological pre suppositions; and, finally, to note the attention which must be given to theoretical perspectives and their implications as we set about the task of refining a cross-disciplinary approach to the Bible, its social world, and their as yet unlocked mysteries.

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1982    The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity. Essays on Corinth. Edited and translated with an Introduction by John H. Schuetz. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Theissen, Gerd.

1983    Studien zur Soziologie des Urchristentums. Wissenschaftliche Unterschungen zum Neuen Testament, 19. 2nd ed. Tuebingen: Mohr (Siebeck). (1979).

Theissen, Gerd.

1983a    The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition. Translated by F. McDonagh and edited by J. Riches. Philadelphia: Fortress (1974).

Tidball, D.

1983    An Introduction to the Sociology of the New Testament. Exeter, UK: Paternoster.

Turner, Jonathan H

1978    The Structure of Sociological Theory. rev. ed. Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press.

Wink, Walter

1973    The Bible in Human Transformation. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Winter, Gibson

1966    Elements for a Social Ethic. The Role of Social Science in Public Policy. New York/London: Macmillan.

Normative Dissonance and Christian Origins *

Bruce J. Malina

Creighton University


The survival of a movement or movement organization in face of the destruction of its focal figure and the dispersal of its core membership calls for explanation. In the case of the Jesus movement organization, Festinger’s cognitive dissonance model has been proposed as explanation for that organization’s survival (Gager). However, given the fact that Festinger’s model has not been validated, perhaps other explanatory models ought be sought. To this end, the normative inconsistency model (Mills) based on the sociological ambivalence model (Merton) is applied with the help of intervening constructs to account for the survival and development of nascent Christianity. The implications of the model are drawn out and suggestions for further research are offered.


The survival of a movement group in face of the destruction of its focal figure and the dispersal of its core membership calls for explanation. The faction organized by Jesus of Nazareth disbanded with his death, yet ultimately survived. It did not go the way of other Jewish reformist factions, the way of murder-suicide or destruction by local governmental forces. The group did not move from non-violence to violence, nor did it opt for head-on confrontation with force to its own destruction. And finally, it did not go the way of millennial groups (see Burridge 1969), which presumably always have a brief lifetime.3 Given the fact that the members of the Jesus group were not physically annihilated, why did they persist as a group? If they were, in fact, millennial-minded, why did their group endure?

One answer set forth by Gager (and others more or less at the same time: Jackson, 1975; Wernik, 1975; and, for the O. T., Carroll, 1977, 1979, 1980) is based on Festinger’s cognitive dissonance model (Gager, 1975:20 ff., especially 40; after Festinger et al., 1956). According to the presuppositions of that model, when group members find that the belief system to which they have actively committed themselves has been disconfirmed, their normal reaction is to bring new members into their group on the basis of the disconfirmed belief. For example, if people sell all they have, give up their jobs, and leave their families in order to join a group that believes the world will end on January 2, 1986 and only group members will be saved, on the day after the target date, group members will normally begin seeking out new group members committed to the belief that the world will end soon. This activity of seeking out new members eases the confusion and disappointment caused by the fact that nothing happened on the target date. The contradiction between what people deeply believe in (e.g. that the world would end on January 2, 1986) and their undeniable experiences (e.g. on January 3, 1986, the world is still here) gives rise to feelings of confusion and disappointment. Such contradictions and their attendant feelings are called “cognitive dissonance.” Seeking new group members, i.e. proselytizing, serves to alleviate the cognitive dissonance triggered by the disconfirmation of the belief. Proselytizing thus helps restore consistency and equilibrium to disappointed group members. The problem of the resolution of the cog nitive dissonance accompanying and/or resulting from unconventional beliefs is one raised by not a few scholars investigating such beliefs.

“[M]ost seem to subscribe to the assumption that unconventional beliefs are highly vulnerable to everyday experience and therefore inherently fragile. Given this presumed fragility, it is further assumed that believers are continuously confronted with the problem of salvaging their beliefs in the face of disconfirming evidence. This discrepancy between belief and experience is assumed to induce cognitive dissonance that must be resolved if belief is to persist. As such, much of the literature rests on the additional assumption that the viability of unconventional beliefs and their organizational carriers is contingent on the existence of elaborate plausibility structures and strategies”

(Snow and Machalek, 1982:16).

Not surprisingly, investigators persist in these assumptions even in face of their own disconfirming, daily experiences. For example, the fact that U.S. “capitalism/democracy” and Soviet “communism/democracy” provide each other with abundant information concerning the contradictions between the beliefs and experiences of those espousing these opposed systems, as well as with alternative explanation of the same events, causes no drive to allay the presumed dissonance generated in most Americans and Soviets, even “scientific” ones. Dissonance is not even sensed. By and large belief in “democracy” and “communism” remain undisturbed. Cognitive dissonance is not a problem since some form of normative inconsistency is the rule.

One of the early researchers of the phenomenon of normative inconsistency in the U.S., Robert S. Lynd (1940:54–113), considered contradictions among U.S. cultural norms as roots of “extreme complexity, contradictoriness and insecurity” for U.S. persons. He noted a series of contradictory norms such as the following:

—    Individualism is the secret of America’s greatness, but no one should live for him/herself alone.

—    Each person must look out for him/herself, but people ought to be loyal and stand together.

—    U.S. democracy is the best system in the world, but if things were left to popular vote, nothing would get done.

—    A person must strive for success, but personal character is more important than success.

—    The family is our basic social institution, but business is our most important social institution.

—    Honesty is the best policy, but business is business.

—    Children are a blessing, but one should not have more children than one can afford.

Lynd’s list of inconsistencies was much longer, of course (1940:60–62; see also Williams, 1970:413–437). And significantly, he went on to cite the psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, to the effect that: “These contradictions embedded in our culture are precisely the conflicts which the neurotic struggles to reconcile” (Horney, 1937). On the other hand, Snow and Machalek observe: “Unlike belief in science, many belief systems do not require consistent and frequent confirmatory evidence … Perhaps social scientists should be counseled not to project onto their subjects their own criteria for belief” (1982:23). Of course, most biblical scholars today would heartily endorse Snow and Machalek’s advice. Ethnocentrism and anachronism are generally admitted to be obstacles to valid historical interpretation. So where does the model of cognitive dissonance fit into the scheme of interpretation?

A.    Inconsistency and Cultural Matrix

Where cognitive dissonance presumably seeks resolution of contradiction in favor of consistency, there must of course be a norm in the culture insisting upon the value of consistency, under penalty of doubt, distress or anxiety. The presence of such a norm would be typical of cultures in which values and experiences are expected to match.

However, in the social context of early Christianity, the first century Mediterranean world did not expect such a match. Life was riddled with recognized and acknowledged inconsistency. Furthermore, to employ a model from contemporary U.S. experience, such as Festinger’s cognitive dissonance model, to directly explain something in the Mediterranean world, and the first century Mediterranean at that, seems highly suspect (I find this to be the case with nearly all of the explicit models used by Gager, 1975, e.g. see Malina, 1984). Perhaps apart from the elites of the Roman Empire, the first century Mediterranean was a faction-filled world, a world permeated with dissonance (for elites, see Carcopino, 1940:61–65; and in general, see MacMullen, 1974; Hopkins, 1978). Dissonance and inconsistency of norms are normal in a social situation in which traditional values are not realizable in daily living, a social situation that spontaneously and prolifically spawns coalitions of various sorts (see Simon, 1967 for Judaism; Boissevain, 1974; Lande, 1977b on coalitions). Moreover, given the anti-introspective, dyadic personality of the people involved (see Lande, 1977a; Malina, 1981:50–60; Varenne, 1984), normative dissonance would hardly prompt the modes of coping typical of U.S. individualists who might suffer cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance was normal; life was replete with ambivalence. Gager (1975:39–49, citing Festinger) would have us believe that proselytism reduces the distress and doubt deriving from the disconfirmation of an important belief. Yet if dissonance is pervasive in a society such as the first century Mediterranean world, it would not produce debilitating distress and doubt. As might be expected, dissonance rather led to the formation of coalitions (cliques, gangs, action sets, factions), and coalitions in the form of factions sought the stability of institutionalization, sooner (e.g. the Pharisees) or later (e.g. the Christians).

Rather than any attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance resulting from the disconfirmation of its belief system, I will argue that it was the dissonance itself along with the normative inconsistencies typical of early Christian movement groups that best accounts for the survival and growth of those groups. While nearly all societies have some normative inconsistencies, the way such inconsistencies are handled differs greatly. Suffice it to say that in the social setting of earliest Christianity, normative inconsistency was the rule. Cognitive dissonance took the form of what Merton in another context calls “sociological ambivalence” (Merton, 1976). Recently Edgar W. Mills Jr. (1983), following Merton, sought to explain how the elimination of cognitive dissonance and the implementation of normative consistency might readily account for the tragedy at Jonestown in Guyana. His insights together with those of Merton seem to provide a model of dissonance and ambivalence that might explain why earliest Christianity did in fact avoid extremism and survive, while not a few factions from the same period ended in destruction.

B.    Theoretical Considerations

As will become abundantly clear, extreme behavior is behavior that is totally consistent, inflexible and without options. The question to begin with, then, is this: under what conditions will members of a given group engage in totally consistent, i.e. extreme, behavior? And more significantly, given cases in which the individual’s previous socialization and the group’s ethical norms and values have emphasized non-extremism, when will such group members predictably adopt extremism? In the gospel tradition, for example, individual members of the Jesus faction manifest average dedication, loyalty, and industriousness; Peter shows concern and support for his mother-in-law, Mk 1:29–30; James and John are concerned about their own precedence, Mk 10:35–38; Peter wants to know about his recompense, implied in Jesus’ answer in Mk 10:28–31, etc. And yet non-extremism can be and is replaced by extreme behavior, i.e. extreme violence, courage, heroism, dedication and industriousness. Again in the gospel tradition: giving up one’s life, renouncing all one owns, leaving family and lands, are extreme actions. Now under what set of social circumstances might group members be led to such extremism?

As a rule, the answer to this question is sought in a range of models running from consistency theories to conflict theories. However before describing these, I will consider the model developed by Borhek and Curtis (1975:112ff.) to classify belief systems (see Figure 1). The belief systems in question are any systems requiring “faith” or “trust” in their presuppositions so that the systems might work: e.g. medicine, democracy, science, culture etc. Borhek and Curtis identify two variable features of belief systems that influence the degree to which a given system can withstand challenges from “the real world” or “pressure of objective events.” These two features, defined on the figure, are degree of system or logical consistency and extent of empirical relevance or value realizability. Degree of system refers to logical interrelatedness of elements in any belief system, while empirical relevance refers to testability in terms of concretely and pragmatically verifiable experiences. I would suggest that the Jesus movement and the groups that espoused its interests and ideologies fit within the strong system/low empirical relevance quadrant, while most modern U.S. researchers seeking to explain Christian origins fall within the weak consistency/high empirical relevance quadrant. Hence the researchers’ need to solve the “problem” of inconsistency and presumed dissonance even though their own profession and society are pervaded by not too dissimilar inconsistencies.

Given the foregoing classification, what sort of theory might explain the persistence of inconsistencies? As previously mentioned, there are consistency theories and conflict theories and some in between. Consistency theories are part of the structural-functionalist approach to explaining human behavior. Structural-functionalism presupposes that human living at its best is a homeostatic process in which societal balance is the optimum condition. The resolution of any discrepancy, whether in values, activity or cognition, is believed to be both needful and desirable as well as the ordinary thrust of “normal” human behavior. “Cognitive dissonance, congruity, and balance theories among psychologists, and theories of status consistency and status integration among sociologists are familiar members of this family. The explanatory power of such theories is ordinarily based upon the individual’s need to resolve or reduce the stress that follows from a discrepancy between incompatible alternatives of belief and/or action, or between unequal treatment in different social settings” (Mills, 1983: 280).

Structural functionalism studies society as: (1) an enduring system of groups (2) composed of statuses and roles (3) supported by values and connected sanctions (4) which values and sanctions operate to maintain the system in equilibrium. Thus life is described in terms of norms, hence as interactions which are morally sanctioned, reciprocal exchange of rights and obligations. Focus of attention is on enduring corporate groups, with analysis requiring nothing more than ascribed roles and


Figure 1: Classification of Belief Systems (from Borhek and Curtis 1975) statuses. Here a human being is a member of groups and institutional complexes passively obedient to their norms and pressures.

An alternative approach is taken by conflict theorists. Conflict theories seek to explain human social interaction in terms of inconsistency. Conflict theorists do not deny that conflict or conflicting and discrepant norms, roles or statuses may be stressful to given individuals. But they emphasize the explanatory value and constructive uses of conflict.

“[S]ociety is ever-changing and the scene of constant conflict. However these conditions are not the result of variable rates of change between material and nonmaterial culture. Rather, change is a consequence of the conflict within society; in turn conflict is a consequence of the existence of mutually exclusive interests and the unequal distribution of power. Change and conflict, then, are endemic to any society in which heterogeneous values and interests exist and in which interest groups seek to have their interests translated into rules. Conflict becomes the locomotive power of change” (Pfuhl, 1980: 94–95).

The conflict model presupposes society to be a network of choice-making persons (interdependent individuals and groups) competing for scarce and valued resources (in terms of the particular configurations which the scarce and valued resources form).

Conflict theory studies society as: (1) a temporary and shifting system of group alliances (2) composed of patrons and their clients, cliques and factions, (3) which transact in terms of roles in flux and expectations of actors varying according to the situation and network stance that the actor perceives (4) and supported by a range of values which are modified, selected, rejected and otherwise adapted in order to excuse or explain more venal personal motives, (5) which (personal motives) operate to maintain the system in constant disequilibrium. Thus life is described in terms of shifting and temporary alliances of persons (patrons, clients, cliques and factions) who require enormous amounts of time, energy and other social capital to pursue the social task at hand. Here a human being is a member of groups and institutional complexes actively attempting to manipulate their norms and pressures in one’s own favor.

The two modes of social analysis might be contrasted as follows:

Structural Functionalism


What is best for my corporate group (organization, class, rank)?

What is best for me and my family or fictive family (coalition)?

What is expected of me in this situation?

How can I derive the greatest benefit from this situation?

How much can I contribute to the totality of social needs?

How much can I get away with?

What are the most telling arguments or more important values that prove a person “right”?

Which influential allies could bring pressure on one’s rivals and allies to solve one’s problems?

What roles, occupied by persons, wield great power?

Which persons wield great power due to carefully cultivated but constantly shifting sets of contacts? i.e. which set of contacts count?



Basic questions:

Basic questions:

—what is the pattern of social relations?

—how do patterns of social relations emerge?

—how is this pattern maintained?

—how do such patterns clash and change?

—what are the rules of behavior in such cases?

—what is a person getting out of it?

(The foregoing definitions and comparisons are culled from Boissevain, 1974:1–23, 220–233.)

The conflict model and its networking features presuppose that a person’s immediate social environment is the network of relations into which a person is born. Human beings must subsequently learn to understand this network and reconstruct it as necessary. Such necessary reconstruction takes place as a person attempts to manipulate his/her network, while at the same time being manipulated by that network. Cognitive dissonance, normative inconsistency, ambivalence, stress and distress are regular concomitants to survival. In this perspective, a person is a social, self-interested entrepreneur who seeks to manipulate norms and relationships for his/her own social and psychological benefit.

Between structural functionalist views and the range of conflict theory there are a number of “neo-functionalist” positions, such as the “tension management system” of Wilbert Moore (1974) and the “sociological ambivalence” model of Robert Merton (1976). These models propose that individuals and the groups which they form derive positive benefits from ambivalence and inconsistency. When providing positive outcomes, such ambivalence and inconsistency might be called “normative inconsistency.” The overall value of normative inconsistency to human groups is that it helps persons to manage the conflicting demands of complex roles or status sets, thus allaying the extremism leading to the group’s destruction. All in all, it would seem that conflict theory and those neo-functional models adaptable to conflict theory would best explain belief systems in the strong consistency/low empirical relevance quadrant of the Borhek and Curtis scheme. Consider how Merton’s sociological ambivalence might be adapted to a conflict setting.

C.    Sociological Ambivalence

Sociological ambivalence refers to the sets of contradictory demands (values) built into certain social structures, whether institutions, roles or statuses. Merton defines the idea as follows:

In its most extended sense, sociological ambivalence refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behavior assigned to a status … or a set of statuses in a society. In its most restricted sense, sociological ambivalence refers to incompatible normative expectations incorporated in a single role of a single social status” (Merton, 1976: 6).

In his essay, Merton lists and describes the inbuilt ambivalence to be found in the roles of physician, scientist, organizational leader as well as in voluntary organizations as found in the U.S. He also cites the work of Lynd (1940) mentioned above. The difference between Lynd and Merton is that Lynd considers these contradictory and conflicting demands as necessarily generating a range of psychological maladies from insecurity to neurosis. Merton, on the other hand, forcefully suggests that such inconsistency in norms is a means for preserving the effectiveness of a given social role or institution under the broadly shifting and differing conditions of actual living. For Merton, then, inconsistency of norms, “sociological ambivalence,” allows for individual choice and institutional survival. The autonomy of any person in any social role would be rooted in legitimated normative inconsistency. Normative inconsistency provides for insulation against and resistance to extremism. It defuses extreme social pressure by providing contrary norms without the loss of role or status, without the loss of honor. For every presumed univocal or “no-choice” position, it makes an “on the other hand” available. (Of course, problems can emerge when there is no “other hand,” the extremist position.)

The conflict theorist, Rose Laub Coser, argues that complex roles are necessarily seedbeds of individual autonomy (the title of her 1975 essay). When expectations are incompatible, innovation is easier, flexibility is a must and autonomy is readily at hand. Mills offers the following instructive example:

“If a group member holds as a supreme value the good of the group, or perhaps the divine perfection of the leader, the member’s family may suffer severely unless the increasingly extreme demands from the group trigger in the member a counter value of family welfare. This counter-value causes the member to limit his or her commitment to group or leader and to balance their demands against those of the family. By the same token, of course, commitment to the family’s welfare is dampened by the value placed upon the needs of the larger group” (Mills, 1983:281).

As Mills notes, what is important in the example is not the conflict of roles, but rather the opportunity and need to choose between commitments of the same order, i.e. commitments which are legitimate for group members yet are mutually limiting. A person would, thus, retain individual autonomy by simultaneously honoring differing commitments according to the circumstances.

D.    Inconsistency in the Gospel Story

The story of the initial Jesus movement group presents a wide range of ambivalent behavioral patterns as well as inconsistently realized behavioral norms which seem to be indicative both of the social situation in which the story was told as well as of the type of groups that were nourished by the story. Here I confine myself to the gospels of Mark and Matthew (for inconsistent norms, of course, Paul is far richer). Consider the following instances of ambivalence or inconsistency:

(1) in Mark

—    1:21 and frequently, Jesus teaches in public, yet 3:34 the disciples receive private explanation since they, and presumably the rest of the public do not understand Jesus.

—    1:34, Jesus will not permit the demons to speak, but 3:11 “they cry out: You are the Son of God” anyway; what of Jesus’ power?

—    2:15 and passim, Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, but 5:19 and 7:37 will not let a former demoniac or any Gentile be his disciple, i.e. in his entourage.

—    2:18, disciples do not fast, but 2:20 they will fast.

—    2:21–22, no mixing of the new with the old, but 2:27 “sabbath for man, not man for the sabbath” still maintains the old, i.e. sabbath.

—    3:33 indicates Jesus as alienated from his mother and brothers, and behaving as such, yet 7:10–11; 10:19 requiring honoring father and mother.

—    5:13, Jesus is responsible for destroying a very large herd of swine, while 10:19, he seconds the commandments “Do not steal, do not defraud.”

—    6:7, the Twelve are to take nothing on their journey, not even bread, but 8:14 on their journey with Jesus they have bread.

—    5:28–29; 6:56 shows Jesus with magical clothing/fringes, the mere touching of which produces healing, but in the usual healing narratives Jesus works like the usual healer.

—    6:12–13, the disciples have the same abilities as Jesus, and witness equal success, but 9:18 shows them as unsuccessful.

—    7:19 points to defilement deriving from the inside, from the heart, yet 2:23; 7:5 Jesus observes purity rules not observed by his disciples.

—    8:29 has Peter professing Jesus as Messiah, yet 8:33 Peter is equally on the side of men (thinking like men) not God.

—    11:27 ff.; 12:12 shows Jesus without respect for Torah-constituted authorities, yet 9:42–43 has Jesus warning against giving scandal, i.e. deviating from the demands of the Torah.

—    12:30 requires loving God above all, yet 12:31 requires loving neighbor as oneself; the juxtaposition of the two as norm is quite ambivalent.

—    13:30 has Jesus promising that his generation would not pass away before all these things he has described will take place, but in fact they did not take place.

(2) In Matthew

—    3:2 presents John’s proclamation of the kingdom and pet phrase (brood of vipers), both taken up explicitly by Jesus in 4:17 (see 12:34; 23:33), who is unique nonetheless (9:33: Never was anything like this seen in Israel).

—    5:16, disciples are urged to do their works in public to glorify God, yet 6:1, 4, 6, 18 requires almsgiving, prayers and fasting to be done in private.

—    5:19, while Jesus comes to fulfill the Law and the Prophets the Christian who relaxes a commandment is not excluded from the kingdom, merely shamed somewhat by losing precedence.

—    5:21 prohibits insulting others and saying “fool,” while in 23:1 ff. Jesus liberally insults and calls Pharisees fools in 23:17, “you blind fool.”

—    5:23–24 has reconciliation with aggrieved neighbor precede sacrificing to God, while 22:36–40 has love of God first.

—    5:39, “turn the other cheek” refers to bearing insults (the backhand), but throughout the gospel whenever Jesus is beset by hostile, testing questioners, his first reaction is an insulting counter-question.

—    6:16 speaks of disciples fasting, yet 9:14 indicates that those same disciples (in the story) do not fast.

—    5:44 urges disciples to “love your enemies,” but 10:17 tells them to “beware of men.”

—    7:1–2 commands disciples: “Judge not,” i.e. do not condemn, yet 23:13–33 is replete with Jesus’ judgments (i.e. condemnations) of Pharisees, while previously in 11:20–24 whole populations of towns and cities receive the same treatment.

—    7:7 urges “Ask and it will be given,” yet 17:15–20 disciples cannot heal.

—    7:22 indicates that people will be able to prophesy, cast out demons and do mighty works in Jesus’ name, yet they may be evildoers nonetheless.

—    8:22 urges a would-be disciple not to bother with his father’s burial, 10:35. 37 indicates that attachment to Jesus as faction founder will lead to dissension in the family, and 12:48 points to Jesus’ own alienation from his kinship group, yet 15:4 and 19:19 insist on honoring one’s parents.

—    10:5 has Jesus commanding his disciples: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles,” and at 15:24 states: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” yet 28:19 has the risen Jesus urging: “Make disciples of all Gentiles,” even though in the story “Gentile and tax collector” are quite pejorative terms (5:46–47; 18:17).

—    10:23 has Jesus promise his disciples, “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of man comes,” which of course never happened.

—    13:57 Jesus scandalizes his townmates, 15:12 he scandalizes Pharisees, and 16:23 his disciple, Peter, scandalizes him, yet at 18:7 he proclaims: Woe to the world for scandals.

—    14:35–36 shows people being healed simply by touching Jesus’ tassel, just as 17:26–27 Peter magically finds money to pay the half shekel tax, yet Jesus claims not to practice wizardry 12:22–32, with previous accusation 9:32–34.

—    16:19 Peter has the power to bind and loose, while 18:18 disciples in general (any 2 or 3) can bind and loose.

The list can be expanded, of course. I cite these instances merely by way of example. The point I wish to make is that the normative story of Christian origins to be found in the New Testament is replete with ambivalence and inconsistency. What would be the significance of such ambivalence and inconsistency, apart from the fact that it so well mirrors the social conditions in which the stories were born?

E.    The Significance of Inconsistency

In the language of symbolic social science theory, sociological ambivalence would make sense as follows. A presupposition in symbolic approaches is that human beings have an overwhelming need to know where they are, and they locate themselves in terms of socially contrived lines or limits called purity arrangements (Douglas, 1966). That is “pure” which is in its proper place. Objects out of place, outside the lines, are considered dirt, dirty, impure. Dirt, of course, is matter, things and objects out of place. Persons out of place or unconcerned about the lines are considered deviants (see Westhues, 1972, and especially Pfuhl, 1980). Such persons show little interest in distinguishing between order and disorder.

As a rule human beings develop and maintain their cultures and social structures by fabricating such lines around self, others, nature, time, place and even the “Lineless,” the Ultimate All, God. The set of lines in which we find ourselves at first embedded and which we subsequently reaffirm are lines which can be vested with the further dimension of exclusivity. Purity lines vested with exclusivity produce the sacred, the holy. For example, we are taught to mark off human beings like or unlike ourselves as male and female, and if adult, as friendly or unfriendly. To invest a friendly male or female with exclusiveness marks them off as a “relative,” the degree of proximity determined by the degree of exclusivity ranging from parent to distant cousin. Enculturation and socialization places us, individually and institutionally, within a social space endowed with value. These boundaries, of course, abut against the varied, partially inconsistent values and norms of other persons and institutions serving as our frame of reference, our group of orientation. This group develops from the primary groups of initial enculturation, and therefore would include those standards deriving from earlier socialization. Moral decisions, personal and social, are made in terms of these boundaries. For people repeatedly ask: what do others do, what values do others adhere to, how does church X, family Y, school Z function? Individual human beings and institutions within such social space are marked off by cultural norms and values to which they give allegiance.

Now one of the most important aspects of this sort of social boundaries is the inconsistency of the various positions which make up its boundaries. This inconsistency derives from the fact that significant group members accord legitimacy to more than one normative position. As a result, group members learn offsetting values and norms. By using one set of values and norms to cancel out another, individuals are accorded a degree of autonomy in face of conflicting demands. Independent decisions, innovative behavior, flexible points of view and the like, are thus possible for individuals who can choose from among a range of conducts without losing group approval or incurring group sanctions. Obviously the main reason for this is that there is no full agreement in the group relative to the total meaning of certain socially contrived purity/ sacred lines.

On the other hand, given the fact that individuals can adopt only one pole of permitted conflicting polarities at a time, their behavior will always be open to criticism by opponents for not having followed the opposing value as well. To cite an example from the gospel story, John the Baptist is said to have a demon because he did not eat and drink, while Jesus is a glutton because he did (Matt 11:18–19). Or a contemporary example: if a young couple chooses to live together without benefit of matrimony following the example of Uncle Henry, their parents may be displeased. Should they get married, on the other hand, unconventional Uncle Henry might accuse them of “copping out,” and disinherit them. The individual can find defense in recalling the essentially inconsistent quality of the value in question, and thus allay opposition.

Yet opponents may insist on the value of the opposing pole, develop a coalition espousing it as central, and thus evolve into an extremist group bent on consistency and depolarization in favor of a single option. For example, if all socialism is communism, and any form of government welfare is socialistic, then all forms of welfare must be eradicated if only to save democracy. The single option position emerges as group members define their situation, draw their purity lines more tautly, with less sag, with fewer curves. In sum the space grows more sharply marked off, more confined, more restricted and restricting as option after option falls away. The situation is not unlike knocking out the inside walls of a house and shrinking the whole structure so that the owner is left with but a single cubicle, 3 ft. x 4 ft. x 5 ft., out of a previously well proportioned, many roomed building. Or to take another example, it is like having all one’s available clothing taken away to such an extent that all one is left with is but a single set of clothes. This is what the removal of sociological ambivalence or normative inconsistency is like.

From the vantage point of persons in social situations marked by ambivalence and inconsistency, the new restricted, consistent and unambivalent situation is an innovative position. For example, to the ambivalent and inconsistent social world of the first century Palestinian town dweller, the single-minded dedication and extremist life-style of the wandering preacher/healer would be quite innovative (e.g. as described by Theissen, 1978:8–23; see Malina, 1984a). Yet to the Roman, Greek or Idumaean outsider uninterested in Jewish problems and their resolution, the wandering preacher/healer would seem to be occupying a “hold” position leading to temporizing or “plateauing,” or simply “waiting for the End to come.” In this perspective, this would be stagnation not innovation.

F.    Sociological Ambivalence and Group Stability

Sociological ambivalence points to legitimated inconsistency. Such legitimated inconsistency allows for individual autonomy, as previously noted. What does it do for a group? At the level of social struc ture, the existence of conflicting norms and values provides for a “ferment of differences which encourages innovation and inhibits system efficiency” (Mills, 1983:282). Or as noted previously, it leads to the proliferation of factions and a lack of uniformity. In moderation, Mills notes, this is valuable since it protects group members from hypercommitment and the tendency to extreme behavior. Some see the main problem of community building and maintenance as consisting in how to secure total and complete commitment (Kantner, 1972). While this may indeed be a problem for organizers (e.g. the apostles and wandering preachers/healers of early Christianity), the question it raises is whether such total and complete commitment, i.e. deflated commitment, will assure the group’s survival. Is deflated commitment always better for group survival? While inflated commitment among group members will surely lead to the group’s dissolution, deflated commitment may lead to severe limitations of another kind. Mills takes an analogy from the classical economic model cited by Hirschman (1970). He writes:

“Noting the classical economic model of perfect competition he (Hirschman) evokes ‘the image of a relentlessly taut economy’ in which ‘society as a whole produces a comfortable … surplus, but every individual firm considered in isolation is barely getting by, so that a single false step will be its undoing. As a result, everyone is constantly made to perform at the top of his form.”

Hirschman notes in detail that regardless of the conceptualization, slack is constantly generated both in economic and in organizational terms. Again Mills:

“Performance (judged on rational, goal-oriented grounds) is continually being undermined in a kind of social entropy. ‘Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.’ Hirschman finds that ‘slack fulfills some important, if unintended or latent, functions …’ It acts ‘like a reserve that can be called upon,’ offering a degree both of stability and of emergency resources to an organization which, if always taut, would be much more volatile and vulnerable to environmental changes” (Mills, 1983:282–3).

The analogy points to the fact that groups with inconsistency allow for slack, an important resource for survival. The individual in a group allowing for multiple commitments will have socially legitimated values and norms that are somewhat at odds with each other. This will hold the individual back from singular commitment, from being led by a single all embracing loyalty. The individual will then have room to hesitate, alternate and innovate. In the Christian tradition, Paul of Tarsus is a good instance of such a person with multiple commitments: to the tribe of Benjamin, to Hebrews, to Pharisaism (Phil 3:5), to Christ as an Israelite and descendant of Abraham (Cor 11:22–23), not a Gentile sinner, but apostle to Gentiles, even all things to all men (1 Cor 9:19–23). Multiple commitments allow for a balance between totalitarian singleness of purpose and anarchic purposelessness.

Leaders who demand complete loyalty to a cause will strive to reduce the individual’s social space (purity/exclusiveness) by stripping away multiple commitments. Such reduction of social space (and thus of personal autonomy) to include only the leader and the individual will lead to a unidimensional relation of obedience to the leader. This naturally eliminates choice and decision making, depriving the group of the alternative criteria by means of which potentially extreme forms of behavior are inhibited. As a result, the movement organization becomes vulnerable to its leader’s mobilization of its obedient parts into extreme action because there are no contrasting norms to dampen the extremism. This was the case with a number of Messianic pretenders and their groups in first century Palestine.

G.    Some Pertinent Examples

The New Testament writings make mention of several such Messianic claimants (Acts 5:34ff.; 21:28; cf. Jn 6:14f.; 7:45–48; 10:8ff.; 11:47ff.). There are even more extensive accounts in the writings of Flavius Josephus. Thanks to these sources we know that in Roman dominated Palestine, there were individuals who styled themselves “prophets” (alluding to the promise of Deut 18:15–19), thus assuming the role of the eschatological Moses. Following the example of the Moses of the Exodus, these prophets sought a large following among whom they might stir up eschatological war fever, to overflow into action against the Roman oppressor and his lackeys. The problem of such would-be “prophetic” leaders was how to enroll a following for this project, how to establish credibility and build enthusiasm. The solution invariably was recourse to the image of the Israel of the Exodus period, to Moses who legitimated himself as liberator of his enslaved people with a series of signs. Hence what was needed to mobilize the masses was a set of signs calling for hypercommitment and consistency in living.

Thus Josephus reports that a certain Theudas presented himself as “prophet” and promised that the Jordan would be divided at his command, with easy passage possible (War 2, 258–260; Ant 20,97). The allusions to Joshua 3 and the Reed Sea crossing are obvious.

At the time of the Jewish war, Josephus recounts (Ant 20,168) that “swindlers and deceivers” arose in Jerusalem and demanded that people follow them into the wilderness so that they might convince the crowds of their legitimacy as prophets on the basis of “signs and wonders,” “according to God’s counsel.”

Before the final destruction of Jerusalem, a “false prophet” proclaimed the “signs of rescue” (War 6,285) and somewhat later in 73 A. D. a weaver named Jonathan led the Jews of Cyrenaica into the wilderness to perform “signs and spectacles” there (War 7,437ff.).

Earlier, during the time of Pilate an anonymous Samaritan summoned a following to Mt. Gerizim in order to show the people the lost, sacred vessels of Moses’ time, thus providing legitimate proof of the end time, and of his role as leader (Ant 18,85). A “prophet” from Egypt also attracted a following, leading the people up the Mount of Olives from which they were to observe the collapse of the walls of Jerusalem (Ant 20,169ff., after Joshua 6:20?).

All of these movement groups had no lasting success. While the promise of signs could develop a following, or even mobilize a crowd, no enduring effects were produced. Instead Roman officials such as Pilate, Fadus and Festus ruthlessly crushed the “messianic” movement groups before they could get effectively organized. Their core members were scattered abroad, if not killed, while their leaders often dishonored themselves by abdicating responsibility (cf. Ant 20,172). Of all such Jewish messianic movement groups of first century Palestine, only the Jesus movement group survived. One good reason for its survival must be the normative inconsistency typical of the group as well as the sociological ambivalence built into the role of group organizer and head. On the other hand, the destruction of all the other “prophetic” groups of the period has to be assigned to hypercommitment by members. Polarities were not allowed to work their tempering effects, e.g. among the Essenes of Qumran and the Zealots of Masada.

To eliminate one side of a polarity set is to remove the opportunity for autonomy and to eradicate a barrier to extremism. Mills notes:

“For the group to destroy family ties and refuse legitimacy to the needs of spouse and children (or to provide for those needs in an entirely separate way) effectively releases commitment to group needs from one significant source of limiting counter-values. As group demands become more extreme there is less basis for refusing them. Thus (to the extent that a member accepts the redefined value structure), as commitment to group needs grows more complete and less damped by counter-commitments, role autonomy declines. The consequences for the group include both the loss of a source of criticism and correction (the member with multiple loyalties) and the greater possibility of unquestioning obedience to demands for extreme behavior. An important consequence is that group members who become violent or engage in other anti-social behavior need not actually approve their own actions to engage in them. It is sufficient that inhibiting or damping norms or values be reduced in effectiveness” (Mills, 1982:283).

This last point underscores that ordinary morality is indeed supported by an individual’s contrasting loyalties to ambivalent and inconsistent standards, customs and laws. As a result ordinary people must keep correcting their behavior whenever allegiance to one norm threatens severe violation of another. (In assessing moral cases this is called “healthy moral scepticism”). The loss of such scepticism, a damping effect, releases behavior from its principal inner restraint and allows group influences to carry the individual far beyond what he/she ordinarily, normally and usually would have approved. As a rule “selective inattentiveness” is the main damper. People experience no dissonance because they simply fail to absorb the fact that their beliefs are challenged; input is blandly ignored and goes unacknowledged (Snow and Machalek, 1982:22–23).

The tendency of leaders to surround themselves with core group members who support the leader uncritically also reduces the operation of contrasting value sets and leaves the leader him/herself vulnerable to extremes of behavior. This, of course, can have serious consequences for the group. As regards Jesus and his followers, the gospel story points up how the core group (e.g. Peter, James, John) were not uncritical supporters. And if Acts is a reliable source, the record of conflict and criticism within the Christian group points to ongoing inconsistency and ambivalence.


What then would account for the survival of the Jesus movement group? It would seem that normative inconsistency helps explain how extremist tendencies leading to destruction were braked, thus enabling survival.

On the individual level commitment to conflicting norms, values and information provides a damper on tendencies to extremist behavior. Such commitment thus protects the individual from demands for hypercommitment in any direction.

On the group level, survival greatly depends on the group leader’s strategy and choices. The leader may perceive the presence of multiple loyalties among group members either as (i) interfering with the pursuit of group goals, or as (ii) contributing to the group’s wisdom in decision making. But in either case, multiple loyalties point to organizational “slack” which modifies the strict rationality of goal-oriented behavior. Such organizational slack diverts energy and subverts efforts to rationalize and account for total commitment to the group and/or its goals(s). Since this kind of slack is constantly generated in an open group, leaders must take drastic measures if they wish to achieve a “taut” organization with hypercommitted members.

The following may be seen as the most important means leading to the development of extremist groups. The presence of these features points to a high probability of the group’s non-survival:

(1).    physical and social isolation; persistent isolation of members from outside, conflicting norms and values and persons embodying those norms and values;

(2).    control of information flow within the group;

(3).    undermining and possible destruction of trust relationships (commitment, solidarity) with persons other than group leader (in a faction) or fellow members (in an institutionalized faction);

(4).    suppression of alternatives or options in values and behavior.

These features are lacking in early Christian groups, as far as we can ascertain (except perhaps the Johannine community, see Malina 1984b). Such features generate hypercommitment; and as such they characterize totalitarian societies, “thought-reform” or brainwashing programs, extreme militant cults or movements and many tightly run, mission-oriented organizations. Should a leader attract a following consisting of persons vulnerable to frustration, he/she can apply adequate means to heighten the frustration while apparently allaying it, and thus move the group to some extremist behavior.

Without these means, sociological ambivalence within the group would generate moral dissonance, making the legitimation and use of extremist behavior impossible for the majority of the group. With these means, the damper effect upon which member automony rests is destroyed and the group is prepared for extremist behavior. Again, whether the extremist behavior is violent, courageous, heroic, industrious, gallant, etc. depends upon the leader and the core group. Mills concludes:

“Thus normative dissonance, like the role complexity of which R. L. Coser (1975) has written, offers opportunity for self-directed change and management of group loyalty. People who are unwilling or unable to tolerate such dissonance, or who are caught up in groups which destroy the social supports for multiple reference orientations, are likely to become collaborators in the reduction of their own moral freedom. While the slide toward violence is not thereby made inevitable, the way is open for a group to act in ways which, taken individually, its members each would have abhorred” (Mills, 1983:285).

What then is the utility of a study such as this for New Testament interpretation? First of all, it acknowledges the contradictions and inconsistencies in both the gospel story of Jesus and in early Christian ethics, and it demonstrates their value for early Christian meaningful survival. Furthermore, it explains why extremists such as wandering preachers/healers and their opposite numbers, sedentary community heads, both served roles valuable for the survival of the Christianity. Finally, the study indicates that the hypothesis about the allaying of cognitive dissonance “when prophecy failed” is insufficient to explain the survival and spread of the early Jesus movement. On the other hand, the essay also suggests further questions worth pursuing in this area. Some such questions include: the kinds of dissonance experienced in various Christian and non-Christian groups assessed in terms of the various types of obligations and/or standards prevailing at the time; the degree to which social obligations were fulfilled or left unfulfilled in daily living, with a description of the resulting dissonance in the latter instance; the conflicting sources of prevailing standards and obligations (e.g. Roman, Jewish, native, factional sources singly and in combination); the possibilities for reducing multiple commitments, i.e. for deflating one’s commitments to a few causes, among the strongly group oriented, dyadic personalities of the first century Mediterranean world, and the like. I would hope the models presented here might serve as point of departure for answering some of these questions.

Works Consulted

Boissevain, Jeremy

1974    Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Borhek, James T. and Curtis, Richard F.

1975    A Sociology of Belief. New York: John Wiley.

Burridge, Kenelm

1969    New Heaven, New Earth: A Study of Millenarian Activities. New York: Schocken Books.

Carcopino, Jerome

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Carroll, Robert P.

1977    “Ancient Israelite Prophecy and Dissonance Theory.” Numen 24:135–151.

Carroll, Robert P.

1979    When Prophecy Failed: Cognitive Dissonance in the Prophetic Traditions of the Old Testatment. New York: Seabury.

Carroll, Robert P.

1980    “Prophecy and Dissonance: A Theoretical Approach to the Prophetic Tradition.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92:108–119.

Coser, Lewis A.

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Douglas, Mary T.

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1956    When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. N.Y.: Harper and Row (Torchbooks 1964).

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1977a    “Introduction: The Dyadic Basis of Clientelism.” Pp xiii–xxxvii in Steffen W. Schmidt, James C. Scott, Carl Lande and Laura Guasti (eds.), Friends, Followers, and Factions: A Reader in Political Cliantelism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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1977b    “Networks and Groups in Southeast Asia: Some Observations on the Group Therapy of Politics.” Pp. 75–99 in Steffen W. Schmidt, James C. Scott, Carl Lande and Laura Guasti (eds.), Friends, Followers, and Factions: A Reader in Political Cliantelism.

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Malina, Bruce J.

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Grid and Group in Matthew’s Community: The Righteousness/Honor Code in the Sermon on the Mount

Leland J. White

St. John’s University (New York)


The Grid/Group model proposed by the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas is an appropriate tool for investigating social dynamics and cultural values of those originally addressed by biblical writers. The Sermon on the Mount contains norms that serve to set Matthew’s community apart from its environment as the righteous from the unrighteous. Establishing sharp boundaries, these norms mark the community as a strong group. Community perceptions appear to be at odds with those of more powerful outsiders. This mismatch, or low grid, is indicated by the community’s failure to articulate procedures for internal structure as well as its concern to defend the group’s honor. Both the norms and the beatitudes which introduce the sermon strategically respond to this situation by identifying the community of disciples as a quasi-family living under God’s paternal protection.


The goal of this essay is to establish a plausible interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7, which overcomes cultural bias. The method proposed for reaching this goal is taken from cultural anthropology. Grid, group and honor, as understood by cultural anthropologists, are used to interpret the meaning of righteousness in Matthew’s text. In this interpretation, the sermon will be presented as a code of conduct, or better rules to govern the way of life of the community to which it was preached. The norms elaborated in this code provide significant insight into how Matthew’s community understood itself.

I.    Anthropological Interpretation: A Method of Criticism

Criticism Uncovers the Tacit: Tacit meanings in texts require interpretation and methods of criticism. Tacit meanings include both pre suppositions and intentions that are not, or can not be specified in the text. Tacit meanings are subsidiary to the writer’s focal meaning (see Polanyi: 87–95). The critic’s task is to clarify the explicit or specifiable meaning in the light of the tacit.

Different methods of criticism represent strategies for uncovering tacit dimensions of the text. Anthropological criticism joins historical criticism, literary and theological criticism in the complex task of biblical interpretation. Its method and objectives may be understood by comparison with these earlier critical programs.

Historical meaning in the Bible is tacit in as much as the writings were not intended as history, nor governed by rules of historical evidence. Historical criticism attempts to discern what is historical in the text. The first task of the historical critic is to classify textual data as historically significant and reliable or not. In so doing, it is necessary to carry out a second task: comparison of this data with similar data in other sources. In both tasks the historical critic is heavily, if not exclusively, dependent on specifiable data which can be counted as evidence. Historical meaning can be substantiated with specifiable data, and further corroborated with similar data within the text or elsewhere. Because this process centers attention on what is textually specified, the historical critic is often unaware that the task involves converting something essentially unspecified or tacit, namely history, into specifiable conclusions.

Literary meaning in the Bible is tacitly present because the text employs grammatical and rhetorical devices to convey meanings. Should we assume a universal grammar and rhetoric, or that the grammar and rhetoric of a given literature might be uniformly adhered to, the literary critic’s task would be simple: to clarify the implications of the various constructions and existing textual arrangements. Because this is not the case, the literary critic must assess the meaning of the text for various readers. Some literary critics claim for the text an autonomous meaning, but this claim invariably presupposes a meaning or meanings ascertainable by readers with fairly determinate predispositions. Thus, literary interpretations, if they belong to the text, are tacit, i.e. awaiting specification by readers.

Critical consciousness, whatever its form, presupposes that the meaning of the specifiable data must be interpreted with data not specified in the text. Historical consciousness, in particular, recognizes that the textual data derive from a wider social and cultural context. Thus, historical critics of the Bible have been led to expand the specifiable by constructing social and cultural history. More or less detailed description of presumably relevant social and cultural facts from within the biblical texts, and from appropriate materials contemporaneous with the texts, are used to fill in the gaps in textual meaning. Again, what was specified in one text, or in part of one text, is used to clarify the meaning of something otherwise tacit.

Historical and literary critics, as well as social historians, share a common focus: they all work with the concrete data of the text whose meaning they explore, or with the concrete data of similar texts. In their concentration on concrete data, these critics differ from social scientists, including anthropologists, who like them explore tacit meanings, but the social scientist probes for those tacit meanings by making explicit use of abstract models of human action and interaction. And when the social scientist sets the concrete textual data within these abstract models of human action and interaction, the abstract social science data will often appear intrusive and arbitrary to historical and literary critics, whose models of human action and interaction are usually both impressionistic and implicit.

In fact, the abstract models of social science are not at all arbitrary. They actually represent a more general human experience than any set of texts might presuppose. Rooted in a wide range of concrete experience, these models are constructed to serve as working hypotheses for interpreting data. When used to interpret textual data, these hypothetical models must be tested in terms of their capacity to illuminate the human dynamics tacitly at play in the textual meaning. When this is done, the model is not extraneous data superimposed on the concrete data of the texts. On the contrary, the concrete data are interpreted in terms of the model, and the model is modified or discarded in terms of its ability to interpret the data.

Social Science vs. Social History: However great their potential and real contributions, social and cultural history remain historical disciplines. As historical methodology dictates, the weight of the specifiable evidence determines the outcome. Social and cultural history yields at best a descriptive account of social relationships that have been explicitly mentioned. Data from Jewish documents, for example, may lead to questions about the reliability of data from Christian documents on social relationships within each community. But social descriptions must presume that the implicit or tacit dimensions of the culture are indiscernible, secondary or possibly roughly analogous to the critic’s culture.

Anthropological interpretation of the Bible, on the other hand, not only uses data from social and cultural history; it also adopts methods provided by the social sciences. Most importantly, it attempts to uncover a theoretical framework in which cues within the text may be more systematically interpreted, and textual interpretations tested. It tests its interpretations of the biblical world by comparing them with interpretations more elaborately developed in a variety of other cultural settings.

In fact, the social scientific approach takes two facts into account: (1) cultural meanings are more often held tacitly than explicitly; (2) the larger patterns of cultural meaning, equally tacit, provide a more ample basis for interpretation than the individual symbols, symbolic actions and texts. Thus, ethnography (the branch of anthropology that describes specific cultures) provides data which are as necessary to the interpreter of texts as lexicography (the linguistic discipline which defines how an individual word is used in available literature). This is the case because the ethnographer helps establish the more salient features of a culture by showing how symbols are used in a cultural system. It thus sheds light on the meaning these symbols have in any given text coming from that culture.

But a detailed description of individual cultures compiled in the ethnographer’s field work becomes even more useful if it is organized into cultural models. The interpreter will turn to cultural models as working hypotheses that provide a theoretical framework for asking what a text or symbol means within a cultural system. Cultural models allow us to test interpretations applied to our texts and symbols in terms of more or less probable cultural patterns. Because the underlying dynamics and pivotal values of cultural systems are often unspecified or tacit, we need the categories provided by cultural models to articulate these dynamics and values. Because the task of interpretation cannot be set aside until all the relevant cultural details behind our texts have been unearthed, the relative simplicity of relatively few cultural models to be applied as working hypotheses is adequate.

What, then, are these cultural models? They are relatively simple, abstract representations of human interactions which identify patterns of co-operation and motivation (social dynamics and cultural values). They direct our attention to the possible reference of otherwise opaque cues. In so doing, they also check the cultural bias of modern interpreters by making it relatively convenient for interpreters to raise questions relevant to cultures other than their own.6

The more general cultural models, which serve as cross-cultural models, situate cues from individual cultures within the larger framework of human culture in general. These general models are, thus, even more helpful to those who interpret texts from cultures other than their own. Indeed, general cultural models are more nearly analogous to the critical advance represented by semantics. In so far as comparable cultural models are applicable to different cultures, they provide a basis for cross-cultural understanding.

Anthropologists are far from agreement on how to apply cross-cultural models (Geertz 1973: 20–23). But cross-cultural models, based on evidence from individual cases, may be tested by applying them to similar cases, using them as diagnostic tools. These general models remain closely linked to the immediate cultures in which we find them working, but they also provide a case history of some use in diagnosing what may be at work in other cultures (Geertz1973: 24–28). So long as cross-cultural models are employed with an understanding that they permit us to anticipate but not to predict that patterns found in one culture will be repeated in another (Geertz1973: 26), they provide a useful and necessary tool for discerning specific characteristics among the multitude of cultural possibilities.

Cultural Variables and Patterns: Cross-cultural understanding is, therefore, enhanced by identifying cultural variables and demonstrating relationships that may be expected among the variables. The cross-cultural model applied in this essay focuses on two variables which may be combined into four fundamental cultural patterns. The same variables, following standard patterns, permit comparisons that open up to the interpreter the otherwise foreign cultural terrain from which the text comes.

What are the variables? First, while every cultural pattern presupposes that individuals have some relationship to other individuals, in some situations most of the significant actions and meanings of the individual’s life are group-determined, while in others group-life is individually determined. How people experience the bounded social unit, the group, is the first variable. Second, while every cultural pattern presupposes some relationship between the values people hold and the everyday reality or social world in which they interact with others, in some contexts values are generally assumed to be confirmed by everyday experience, while in others they are not confirmed. How people experience the fit between values and reality is the other variable.

From culture to culture the significance of the group and the expectation that values will prove workable varies considerably. Each of these variables shapes the meaning of the symbols and symbolic action people employ. Language provides very appropriate examples of how these cultural variables shape meaning. In one culture, for example, people say “we,” presuming that the groups to which they belong are the source of their personal identity. In another, individuals say “we” in reference to groups that they have joined, created or decided to support. To misconstrue the social bond is to misinterpret the connection between the subject and the predicate of every sentence uttered in the first or second persons. Likewise to misconstrue another’s expectation that their values will be confirmed in everyday experience means that the subjunctive may be taken for the indicative or vice versa.

Synthesizing anthropological conclusions drawn in field work in such varied settings as Africa and England with the evidence contained in documents such as Leviticus, Mary Douglas concludes that our two variables provide “a formula for classifying relations which can be applied equally to the smallest band of hunters and gatherers as to the most industrialised nations” (1970: viii). Calling the influence of group-orientation group, and the influence of value-fit grid, Douglas suggests that these two variables may be seen as the horizontal and vertical lines on a cross-bar graph of cultural possibilities (see Figure). The four quadrants of this cultural graph correspond to four fundamental cultural patterns. Douglas’ graph provides for virtually unlimited variations on these patterns in as much as both group and grid may be more or less strong or high. Malina has suggested that the patterns may be increased to account for other common sub-patterns. Whatever modifications we may imagine, Douglas’ graph provides a useful starting point for the interpreter in one culture who needs to assess the meaning of a text from another culture. At a minimum, it clarifies the cultural patterns of the reader/ interpreter and the writer/author.

Beyond providing this check on the interpreter’s ethnocentrism, the graph suggests that cultures following similar basic patterns may serve as models for exploring others following that pattern. If strong group cultures very commonly exhibit a preference for honor/shame dynamics, this instructs the interpreter to look for indications of honor/ shame wherever a strong group appears. Our study applies Douglas’ model in precisely this way. Her cultural graph permits us to decode otherwise obscure cues, to question whether a concern for dikaiosune/ righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount was an expression of the dynamics of honor.

The more one element in the matrix appears to conform to expected patterns, the more we are led to question interpretations of less prominent items that contradict the prevailing pattern. Thus, to find a mass of evidence that the group is strong, that honor expresses a basic value, and that grid is weak is to nurture the suspicion that isolated passages the church later read as expressions of a universal mission may have had a more restricted meaning for Matthew’s community. Could a powerless church, anxious to maintain its own boundaries, have understood the injunction to “turn the other cheek” as part of an ethics of non-violence applicable to Christian states and statesmen? To whom was such a norm addressed, and under what circumstances was it thought binding?


Figure: Grid and Group Matrix of Mary Douglas (expanded by Bruce J. Malina) We must not only identify the audience addressed, but also characterize that audience in terms of its own cultural patterns to understand what the norm meant.

II.    Matthew 5–7

To apply Douglas’ cross-cultural model to the Sermon on the Mount, we divide the materials in Matthew 5–7 into two unequal parts. The body of the sermon contains a code for community life, whereas the first seventeen verses of chapter 5, which include the beautitudes (5:3–11), introduces this code. Our analysis begins with the code, because its norms are the central issue in the sermon, and because in such norms the interplay of group, grid and honor are most directly expressed.

A Community Code: Analysis of the one hundred ten verses of the sermon reveals that forty-eight verses either present or explain a norm or rule. In two other verses, 5:17–18, Jesus affirms that “not an iota, not a dot” of the law (Israel’s TORAH) is to be abolished. Eight others, 5:3–11, the beatitudes, interpreted below as greetings addressed to the community, describe Matthew’s community. Thus, more than half the sermon is explicitly devoted to the presentation of a community code.

Further investigation of the forty-eight verses in which norms are presented or explained, shows that twenty-seven (56%) govern internal group relationships (5:19, 21–24, 27–28, 31–37; 6:1–2, 5–6, 16–18; 7:1–3, 15–16, 19). Eleven (23%) govern relationships outside the community (5:16, 25–26, 38–41, 43–45; 7:6). Ten (21%) govern what might be taken as personal conduct or attitudes (5:29–30; 6:19–21, 25–26, 31–33). Thus, we find a community code in which community life is the dominant concern, and merely personal conduct clearly subordinated to social obligations. The focus on social relationships reflects an understanding of the person which is primarily social, embedded in the social group, rather than individual. In so far as this text reflects the dispositions present in Matthew’s community, we should expect this community to follow a strong-group pattern (see Douglas 1970, ch. 4).

Group Variable: To the extent that an association is a bounded unit enduring through time in recognizable ways, it exhibits the characteristics of a group. The clearer the boundaries, marked off by processes for inclusion and exclusion, the more permanent and socially recognizable the community, and the stronger the group. By strong, we indicate its measure of control over actions of its members (see Douglas 1970, 56–57). This group-control is all the stronger in those situations in which the individual does not think to question the priority of the social group.

A rough test of group strength or weakness is given by asking whether members regularly defer to group needs and responsibilities rather than to personally determined preferences. Where the son accepts a bride selected by his father, the group bond is undoubtedly strongest: where the son marries without concern for parental opinion, the weakest. At its weakest, the fear of exclusion is virtually non-existent as is the sense of inclusion.

I regulary demonstrate the weak-group character of American society to my classes by asking them to choose between saving their father, their spouse or their child from a burning house. Virtually all regularly choose child or spouse. If the father is seen as symbolic representative of the family unit to whom one owes the sense of identity, his claim would supercede personally determined relationships. We see this strong-group pattern in Thomas Aquinas’ careful delineation of the hierarchical order in which love is to be meted out, first to one’s father, then one’s mother, then one’s wife, and then one’s children (II-II, q.26). Aquinas acknowledges that one will love one’s wife “more intensely,” but still must show greater love for father and mother (II-II, q.26, a.11). Strong groups consistently show their control over members in publicly recognizeable ways.

The Righteous/Clean: In Matthew’s norms four different strategies aim at marking community boundaries, setting it off from the surrounding world as the righteous from the unrighteous. Understanding themselves as a holy people, an Israel, or People of God, they see what lies beyond these boundaries as unrighteous, unholy. While the explicitly ritual categories of clean/unclean are not invoked, the underlying assertion of the holiness of the group as a whole, as well as the essentially defensive character of the norms affirm that the group wishes above all to avoid contamination. Thus, the clean/unclean distinction is played in the higher key of righteous/unrighteous.

1. A series of antitheses is the first indication of the boundary setting task of this code. Six times, Jesus invokes the formula: “You have heard it said … but I say to you” (5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Typical is the first injunction:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire (5:21).

In each case, with the exception of 5:43 which commands love of the enemy, Jesus interprets an ancient norm by intensifying its meaning. His interpretations are so severe that many have understood them as establishing a new law. But in the formula “You have heard … but I say to you” the second part of the statement extends the meaning of the first without contradicting or abrogating the first, except for the instance noted in 5:43 where Jesus commands love of enemies, saying “You have heard … hate your enemy.” These antitheses, which contrast co nventional interpretations of the Law with Jesus’ more demanding interpretations, establish boundaries between those who follow Jesus’ interpretations and those who follow conventional interpretations. The tone of the antitheses likewise serves to assert the moral superiority of this new community over the old.

2. Norms calling for concealment of their observances from others further emphasize the boundaries separating the community from the outside world. Thus, they are told “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men …” (6:1), to sound no trumphet when they give alms (6:2), to pray behind closed doors (6:5), to conceal their fasting (6:16). The most dramatic expression of this sentiment appears in the command, governing relationships with outsiders, “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (7:6). These norms conceal the righteous from the unrighteous outsiders. But at the same time they conceal degrees of righteousness within the community, a point we will consider later.

3. Severe intensification of old norms, the pattern we have already observed in the antitheses, has the power to distinguish the new community from the old in ways that outsiders comprehend. The new community is separated from the old and the rest of society by its relatively extremist observance. In 5:19 this inflexible resolve is underlined:

Whoever then relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Severely intensified interpretations (not only no killing, but also no anger or harsh words not only no adulterous deed but also no adulterous look) reach their culmination in 5:31–32:

It is also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress …

On first reading, this norm appears no more extreme than the others, and perhaps less so because it states an exception (and all the more since Matthew’s exception contrasts with other divorce sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark 10:1–2; Luke 16:18). Further analysis, however, shows that this exception does not excuse from an obligation. Instead the exception specifies a further obligation. Why? In a patriarchal setting, where the husband is responsible for the conduct of his wife, the husband would be responsible for her unchastity. Not to respond to an unchaste wife by divorce would be to condone the unchastity. Thus, the exception is scarcely a relaxation of the law.

When Matthew makes interpretations such as this one, he may be following the rabbinic hermeneutical rule for “making a fence around the Torah.” (Aboth 1:1) The Law was surrounded by precautionary rules to halt observants before they came within striking distance of a possible violation. For example, things which must be done before morning were to be done before the preceding midnight (see Przybylski: 81). Matthew’s community is set apart by its total observance from all who would compromise or fail in the least. (Note also 5:29 about plucking out an eye that causes sin.)

4. A socially defensive strategy employed by this community is the fourth indication that it set itself apart from the wider society. Communities and individuals are socially defensive to the extent that they engage in wider social interactions warily, having first secured their base by fulfilling their more immediate social responsibilities. The more consistently such a strategy appears, the more likely it is that the public arena is regarded as unfriendly. The injunctions in 5:23–25, 33–37, 39–41 and 7:6 exemplify this socially defensive strategy.

To leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled at home (5:23–24) does indicate the need for honest worship rather than lip service. Nonetheless, the worshipper is also told to cover his bases, to attend to the most immediate relationships. This command is more significant if we judge it to have been more symbolic than practical. That it is symbolic is evident on two counts. First, Matthew presumably writes after the destruction of the Temple. Second, Matthew portrays a community in such conflict with Jewish authorities, represented by the Pharisees, that it is unlikely that this community would have been welcome at temple functions. Because this command governs a procedure no longer possible for Matthew’s community, it may serve, as does much of the ritual legistation in the Mishnah, more as a sign of ideal holiness than as practical legislation (Neusner 1984). It would signify that home and family observance now surpass temple observance. We will give greater consideration later to this socially defensive strategy.

Grid Variable: The extent to which individuals are able to shape their social interactions in terms of patterns, classifications and relationships is the measure of their perception of the match between their values and experience. In Douglas’ terminology, this “fit” is called grid (see Douglas1970:vii, ch. 4). Everyday interpersonal life either fits or fails to fit the picture of reality people hold. Where people perceive congruity between the real world and their world views, they assume that the patterns of everyday social interaction serve the purposes of their overarching worldview. The greater the sense of fit, congruity or consistency, the more likely they are to adhere to defined social patterns, to find classifications of people and objects helpful, and the more open they will be to the idea that everything and everyone can be dealt with as parts of a vast network of meaningful relationships.

Not unexpectedly, where congruity and fit are at their highest levels, the network of patterns, classifications and relationships will be correspondingly high. When people perceive that established procedures and norms will be effective in realizing their purpose in life, their grid is high. Where congruity or fit is non-existent or at comparatively low levels, the network of patterns, classifications and relationships is correpo ndingly underdeveloped. Standards and norms are relatively few and vague because they have not been defined by experience. Faced with a multiplicity of everyday challenges, but armed with one or two recipes for meeting them, people perceive that survival is a matter of chance, fate or supernatural determination. Their grid is low.

It is important to recognize that grid may as readily be derived from self-imposed definitions as from socially constructed categories. In a strong group society, the grid will be determined by the group when it ascribes class and status to different individuals. In a weak group society, the grid will be determined by the individuals themselves, who in achieving status also determine for and among themselves the range of contractual relationships mutually acceptable.

In contrast to traditional societies, mainstream American society is relatively weak group. Yet the complex differentiation of functions and achievement present in American life make the American grid, which is largely determined by individuals, high. Because moral obligation follows patterns created by both group and grid, to conclude from the unpredictability of modern American ethical decisions that the moral sense is weak is erroneous. Where group sense is weak, the network of obligations derived from one’s personal grid may be quite complex and all the more intensely felt because it is a matter of personal preference.

Indeed, even though individually determined, some aspects of the grid will be uniform and intensely felt across a mass society in which group sense is weak. Thus, without any strong sense of family as a bounded group, my students have little hesitation in defining the parent’s responsibility to the child in distress as preeminent, and they do so in near unanimity. Mainstream American society affirms the possibility of individuals affiliating with one another for common objectives. In this process mutual obligations and expectations become both specific and limited. Social groups in a weak-group/high-grid society express the changing commitments made by individuals who, because they are relatively skilled in defining personal commitments, set limits for group activities, providing a measure of stability to the social system. In other words, Americans are less likely than strong-group people to derive their obligations from their membership in a stable group; but Americans create and maintain group life as a means of fulfilling obligations that arise among individuals.

The cultural pattern in Matthew’s community reverses the American pattern. We have already seen that Matthew’s community must be seen as strong-group. We will show that it is also low-grid, making it unlike secular modern society in terms of both group and grid.

Such evidence as we have about the Mediterranean world of the first century suggests that the strong-group pattern is predominant. Grid would be more variable, high for groups (1) integrated into the imperial culture or (2) living in isolation from conflict with the imperial system; and low for groups (3) unwilling to asssimilate or unable to isolate themselves. The upper-class elite in Jerusalem before the Jewish Revolt, represented in the gospels by the Sadduccees, belong in the first category; Jews following Pharisaic traditions in isolated settings belong in the second. Pharisaic Jews living in urban cosmopolitan centers probably belong in the third. While the geographical location of Matthew’s community has not been identified, scholars conclude that it was in one of these urban cosmopolitan centers. In such a setting Matthew’s community would confront strong-group/high-grid Gentiles, and more immediately strong-group Jews who might have been either high or low grid. Whereas Matthew’s community contrasts with mainstream Americans in both grid and group, it contrasted with its own probable setting in terms of its grid.

A Community of Equals: The low grid within Matthew’s community is evident from the lack of a formal power structure and the prohibition against recognizing rank or achievment within the community. Only one type of leadership role appears to be recognized within this community, namely teaching and/or prophesying. The one who teaches (didaxe) all the commandments will be called great, and the one who relaxes any will be called least (5:19). But this ranking is “in the kingdom of heaven.” Moreover, this rank is dependent on observing the norms. The link between “doing” and “teaching” binds the teacher to the same obligations as all other members of the community.

Jesus’ saying that he will send prophets (prophetas), wise men (sophous) and scribes (grammateis) shows the possibility that a range of teaching roles was recognized (23:34). But to see these roles as offices presumes that Matthew’s community has reached the stage of complex organization in which a specialized division of labor is required for the community’s life. There is no evidence that such organization is present or that roles have become specialized. In the Sermon on the Mount, the only allusion to the prophetic role is negative, a warning to “beware of false prophets” (7:15). Like the teachers, the prophets are to be judged in terms of their works, their observances (7:16–20).

The only suggestion of a formal structure within the community is contained in the norm prohibiting insults against one’s brother. The guilty are “liable to the council” (synedrio).” A similar, but slightly more elaborated norm appears elsewhere in Matthew 18:15–17. This later norm envisions a three stage procedure for resolving disputes. After efforts at personal reconciliation, and informal mediation by two or three others fail, disputes are to be submitted to the church, whose ultimate power is excommunication. These procedures, possibly adopted with adaptation from Jewish practice (Brown:135), reflect a pattern of organization that places minimal reliance on formally distinguished roles. When we ask who governs Matthew’s community, who enforces its norms, we find no evidence that such functions have been assigned to any individual or group. The community apparently functions in the ad hoc fashion of an extended family.

Not only do distinctions of rank or office appear lacking, but the members of the community are specifically enjoined to avoid acting in ways that could gain public social recognition in favor of recognition in secret by God (6:1, 2, 5–6, 16). Moreover, the community is further told to avoid passing judgment (7:1). Thus, the possibility of establishing rank within the community is excluded, because criteria for rank are absent and preoccupation with rank is condemned (23:8–12). Indeed, status reversal, the humbling of the exalted and the exalting of the humble (23:12), is the community norm.

A Socially Powerless Community: Outside the community, in relations with the wider, presumably higher grid, society, Matthew’s community is apparently severely restricted. There is no evidence that the community has power, privilege or prestige; its social status is low. Consistent with this depressed social status, the community follows a maximally defensive strategy. The norms governing external relationships presume hostility and/or powerlessness (5:25–26, 38–41, 43–44, 7:6). All but 5:43–44 prescribe that the community restrict its claims on others to avoid unwanted and predictably unfavorable reactions.

Thus, members of the community are told to settle with an accuser to avoid going to court, which could lead to imprisonment (5:25). Likewise, they are told not to resist one who is evil (5:39), to give in before the threat of a suit by giving up not only the coat, which could be legally taken as security, but even the cloak, which was not legally claimable (5:40). Similarly, they were told not only to submit to the forced march of one mile, permitted under Roman law, but to voluntarily go two miles (5:41). These are all avoidance strategies, behavior patterns designed to create distance between members of the community and outside authorities even at the cost of yielding rights guaranteed under law. Such strategies are evidence that the community perceives itself as lacking power or freedom to act within the wider society.

Matthew’s community felt free to interact with unfriendly outsiders in one respect, when retaliation was least probable. They might carry out Jesus’ unprecedented command to love the enemy and persecutor (5:43–44). In so doing, they might also live up to Jesus’ description of the community as the salt of the earth, the light of the world (5:13–14). Nonetheless, this command acknowledges hostility and scarcely implies that the community can do anything to eliminate the hostility.

Concept of Honor: In some cultures, the Mediterranean world being a notable example, honor plays a crucial role in establishing a sense of worth (see Pitt-Rivers 1968). Honor is public esteem enjoyed by a person or group. Lack of it is shame and the sense of shame is the defensive posture adopted to protect honor. In either case the most salient feature is the fact that worth is ascribed to groups and individuals by others whose worth is beyond question. Self-worth understood as honor does not develop from within the individual or group assessing their own inner integrity (Malina 1981: 25–29).

In cultures of this type, each person’s honor is normally dependent on the public esteem accorded one’s group, which is in turn dependent on the honor of the group’s leader. Rarely are individuals perceived by themselves or in terms of their own individual characteristics alone. They perceive themselves and are perceived by others in terms of relationships to other persons and groups. Instead of persons functioning as unique individuals, monadically, personal identity and worth is established and maintained within a system of dyads (see Malina 1981:53–60). The wife, for example, has worth as the dependent of her husband, who in turn is a person of honor in so far as he provides for her needs, notably her need for socially acceptable status. The shameless wife dishonors her husband, but the wife’s status falls with her husband’s. To assess the position any individual holds we have to consider the other member or members of the dyadic associations in which the individual stands.

In accordance with such a cultural model, disciples of a shameful teacher lack honor. To assert the honor of the disciples (successfully) requires an assertion of the honor of the community and of the community’s teacher. Shame, rather than guilt, motivates the responses of people in honor cultures to wrong-doing. In shame the judgment of others is internalized, while in guilt the wrong-doer reacts in terms of inner convictions that do not require public recognition. As Wyatt-Brown writes in reference to the honor code of the Old South:

Guilt entails a sense of discrete violation, even if society at large might not judge the misdeed so severely. Shame, on the other hand, involves a congruence of social and personal perceptions … If an honor-centered person is guilty of some wrong, his or her primary desire is to escape the implications of weakness and inferiority, the lash of contempt. The threat of shame, under such circumstances, would encourage resort to any means of deceiving the allprying, ever-judging public … (155)

What is significant in both honor and shame is that public reputation, rather than an internal judgment of conscience, establishes one’s sense of self-worth and that this publicly acknowledged worth is ascribed on the basis of one’s associations more than it is individually earned.

Righteousness as an Honor Term: Although the noun honor does not appear in the sermon or in Matthew, the term dikaiosune/ righteousness occurs seven times in the gospel and five of these are in the sermon (5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33). While its meaning is much debated, there is a scholarly consensus that this is an important concept in the Gospel of Matthew. It is especially argued that the concept of righteousness plays a crucial role in determining the Matthean view of salvation (Przybylski: 2).

The term dikaios/righteous appears seventeen times in Matthew. The second term has the peculiar feature that it is restricted to those who follow the TORAH in the traditional Jewish pattern (Przybylski: 101–104). There is one instance (5:45) in which it is said that the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Nonetheless, the disciples of Jesus are not designated as “righteous” at least in the present, this term being reserved for those who have traditionally claimed it.

Meaning of Righteousness in Matthew: Debate about the meaning of righteousness questions whether righteousness refers to God’s gift to humans, or the divine demand on humans. The debate is complicated by the further issue of whether Matthew agrees or disagrees with Paul’s understanding of the term, especially when Paul is read from an Augustinian/Lutheran perspective.

1. Because we will consider 5:6 and 5:10 in our later separate discussion of the beatitudes, we begin consideration of the meaning of righteousness with 5:20:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The most important factor in determining the meaning of righteousness is its position as preface before the antitheses already mentioned. Because these are intensified interpretations of the old law rather than a new law, Matthew has in mind a righteousness marked by an “extremely meticulous observance of the law” (Przybylski: 83). Thus, the disciples are called to a righteousness which refers to conduct according to the most exacting of norms, a divine demand on humans.

2. Verse 6:1 warns against “practicing (carrying out, performing) your righteousness before men.” Conventional translations appear to interpret this as “deeds of righteousness” in as much as it is usually translated as “piety” rather than “righteousness.”

3. In 6:33 the disciples are challenged to “seek first the kingdom (rule/reign) of God and his righteousness.” About this text three observations are in order. (A) The reign of God is at a minimum a situation in which God rules (rather than another place or time, the conventional understanding of many Bible readers which cannot be totally disregarded). (B) If this is, as it may well be, a semitic parallelism, then rule of God and his righteousness are not two separate items to be sought, but only one. Thus, the total execution of the divine demand is again the meaning of righteousness. (C) Matthew interpolates righteousness in this text, where Luke 5:31 has only kingdom/rule. Both Matthew and Luke are concluding the section of the sermon in which Jesus instructs his disciples not to worry, or ask ” ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things” (6:31–32). If Matthew has added righteousness to parallel rule of God, he appears to be suggesting that the demands of righteousness, like the rule of God provides answers to these questions. Why ask, like Gentiles, when you have the TORAH (the rule of God/God’s righteous demands) as your guide? Neither Luke nor Jesus may have intended such a focus on the Torah in referring to the rule of God. But given Matthew’s inclination to follow rabbinic thought patterns, to seek the kingdom is to seek to fulfill the demands of righteousness.

Disciples not called Righteous: Explanation: The critical difficulty in our argument that righteousness functions as an honor concept is the fact that Matthew does not apply righteous to members of his community. They are called to righteousness, but not called righteous, and they are enjoined to conceal their righteous deeds from public view. To cope with this paradoxical reality, it is helpful to observe that the hiddenness of the righteous is an important feature of the socially defensive strategy already mentioned. Nonetheless, by proposing a righteousness higher than that held by those called righteous, they imply that they are a superior community of the righteous.

Moreover, while this community may be convinced of its fundamental righteousness, it must deal with a social fact: they are not seen as righteous by the surrounding society. The socially defensive strategy the community adopts, and the pattern of concealing their righteousness are reasonable responses to the fact that others see them as shameful, lacking honor. Honor, after all, is a matter of public esteem. To really be “righteous” in an honor/shame society requires public recognition. Matthew’s community had to compensate for the surrounding society’s negative judgment. They needed a public forum in which their righteousness could be affirmed. When we examine the beatitudes, we will see how an alternative quasi-public forum was created, an extraordinary tribunal, in which God provided their vindication.

To understand their predicament, however, it is helpful to speculate about why the Matthean community lacks honor or public respect. The most important fact is that this community claims Jesus the crucified as its leader. Members of the community share the public esteem or blame in which the crucified is held. It needs to be observed that Deuteronomy 21:23 had said that “a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance,” by letting the body of such a man remain “all night upon the tree.” If the land was defiled, contaminated by the crucified, so much more the disciples of the crucified. The “holy” or “righteous” should avoid all contact with the “unholy” and certainly with the “crucified” and his adherents.

III.    Interpreting the Code

What did Matthew’s code mean to his community? While social scientists might take various approaches to this question, cultural anthropologists, such as Douglas, insist that we take the code’s symbols seriously. They argue that symbols should be seen as shaping social life as well as reflecting conditions imposed by the social situation. It is not enough to assume that symbols may compensate for conditions. Symbolic anthropology asks: What do the symbols mean in themselves? instead of What do they stand for? Symbolic expression is taken to be a relatively autonomous activity, rather than political, economic or psychosexual activity in another form. Symbolic interpretation recognizes the tendency of groups and individuals to replicate patterns in one area of life in others. But the symbolic interpreter is content to derive insight from the replicated patterns without inferring cause and effect relationships. In short, symbolic interpretation attempts only to answer: What did these symbols mean to those who used them? What did they find meaningful in them?

The Beatitudes: Clue to Community’s Self-Understanding: What the norms in the Sermon on the Mount meant to Matthew’s community is clarified within the sermon itself in the Beatitudes. No portion of the sermon is more frequently quoted. They serve as the sermon’s greeting, making a unified statement about the nature of the community. Rather than a set of moral guidelines or ideals, they describe those addressed or expected to fulfill norms in the body of the sermon.

To say that the beatitudes answer the question of whom the sermon addresses presupposes that the norms are not primarily presented by Matthew as a universal ethic. It is first of all a code for this community. This is also consistent with Matthew’s opening narrative in which he places Jesus on the mountain, seeing the crowds, but instructing his disciples (5:1–2). The Matthean beautitudes are greetings extended to an ostracized and persecuted faction, Matthew’s community. They describe their plight, and as we will see, reverse it by assigning them the honor/righteousness of sons of God.

How Matthew’s community understood itself is made clear in the beautitudes. First, Matthew has Jesus address the “poor in spirit” (5:3), where Luke mentions only the “poor.” In ancient thought, Greek as well as Jewish, spirit is more immediately conceived as breath or lifeforce, seen especially as divine breath or power. It is spoken of as being “poured out,” and symbolized with water or oil (used for annointing, but also for fire; hence the constellation of symbols associated with spirit). The one anointed (that is, one who is given the spirit or power) is thought to be empowered with the breath of the one anointing. The point is that the whole conception is worlds apart from the western opposition of spirit and matter. Spirit has to do with power and empowerment, not the realm of the non-material. Thus, those “poor in spirit” must be seen as those poor in power, deprived of power. By altering the original saying preserved in Luke, Matthew has intensified the real deprivation of the “poor” to whom Jesus’ blessings are addressed.

Second, the other beatitudes follow the lead of the first. Each focuses on persons deprived. “The mourners” (5:4) have been deprived of a loved one. In fact, the characteristic social form of mourning was fasting, so that, deprived of a loved one, mourners deprive themselves of food (See Matt 9:14–15). Those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (5:6) are not over-achieving perfectionists. Righteousness was a matter of public acceptability before God and others. In an honor/shame context, to be righteous required not only doing righteous deeds, but gaining recognition as one who did them. In this case those addressed are undernourished to the point of hunger. What they lack is indeed a matter of subsistence, namely the fundamental ordinary sense of honor, respect, being treated as acceptable. kosher people who enjoy God’s favor.

Those deprived of, hungering and thirsting for, what pertains to righteousness are, therefore, the equivalent of those “persecuted for righteousness sake” (5:10). Likewise, they are the same as those insulted, persecuted and slandered “on my account” (5:11). All this followed naturally from association with “the crucified,” who died as the “accursed of God,” the unholy, the dishonored, the shamed.

Of course, the crucial ingredient of the beatitudes is not description of the “powerless” but first, the characterization that they are makarioi/happy or blessed and, second, the elaboration of this characterization in each concluding statement, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3), “for they shall be comforted’ (5:4), “for they shall be satisfied” (5:6), “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10) and “for your reward is great in heaven” (5:11). In each of these a concealed or hidden righteousness is ascribed to those called makarioi/happy.

The righteousness of the makarioi exists as a fact in the “kingdom of heaven,” in the context of the “rule of God.” We have already drawn attention to the fact that the disciples are not called dikaioi/righteous, reflecting the fact that the surrounding society does not see them as such. The “kingdom of heaven,” the community existing under God’s rule, is presented in the beatitudes as an alternate world, another forum in which the righteousness of the disciples is recognized, and thus becomes a fact. There the honor of the community is established before God. The as yet concealed kingdom of God is the quasi-public forum of which we spoke earlier.

Beatitudes Replicate Defensive Social Strategy: While six of the beatitudes proclaim a blessing on the powerless and shameful, three proclaim a blessing on those who are merciful (5:7), pure of heart (5:8) and peacemakers (5:9), none of them necessarily powerless or shameful. Assuming that the merciful, the pure and the peacemakers are the same disciples addressed as powerless, and sensitive to the possibility that the powerless and the powerful may not have the same opportunities for mercy, purity and peacemaking, it is helpful to ask, for example, why and how the powerless make peace. How does peacemaking fit into the life pattern of the powerless? In other words, interpreting this beatitude within the framework of the rest of the beatitudes, we will dismiss the idea that the peacemaking beatitude is addressed to those with power to make war, an idea that comes easily to those who read the beatitude out of its context. But if not addressed to those who might make war, the peacemaking beatitude may still be addressed to those who avoid war. It is defensive, reflecting the socially defensive strategy we would expect in a low-grid community.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (5:9). Whether Hebrew or Greek meanings are read into “peace,” the beatitude addresses those who make an effort to avoid strife. It fits the socially defensive strategy of the powerless. But, without imagining that those addressed have this-worldly power, it may yet imply some positive actions on their part. The most obvious action the powerless might carry out was to extend the greeting of peace, the shalom. What might it mean to think of “peacemakers” as those who carry out this ritual?

Two interpretations are worth considering. First, peacemaking may focus on internal relationships among Jesus’ disciples. In voluntary groups such as the one formed by the disciples, the bonds were between disciple and master, rather than among the disciples. As the New Testament witnesses, this often led to competition among disciples for the master’s favor, competition to be settled only by the master on his terms. This beatitude may express such a settlement: you will be called sons of God; do not look for any more.

Second, in line with the potential for internal strife, the beatitude may be the positive form of subsequent prohibitions against oathtaking (Matt 5:33–37) and the procedures for fraternal correction (Matt 18:15–17). Within an honor/shame context, honor may be gained in the court of public opinion when a contest or challenge is acknowledged as such by one’s equal and the challenge is overcome (Pitt-Rivers International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 1968:508–9; Malina The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 1981: 30–36). A ritual mechanism for acknowledging the affront as a challenge to one’s honor was the taking of an oath; this made the matter a public case from which one side would emerge the winner (of increased honor) and the other the loser (dishonored/shamed). To extend the peace would be a counter ritual. Extended in the face of a personal affront or challenge, this ritual word would remove the matter from public consideration. In other words, within the community of disciples the rule is: extend the peace, avoid strife, express basic equality and group solidarity with the master plus non-competitiveness with each other.

This second line of interpretation is considerably strengthened when the last half of the beatitude is considered. “For they will be called sons of God” (5:9) transforms the community of disciples. No longer a mere voluntary group, it has become a quasi-family, a fictional or legal family, whose father is God. This status means that responsibility for the members’ individual well-being is now vested in God as father; his honor rests on their well-being. Such a presupposition calls into question any personal struggle for advancement or security.

Finally, were it further supposed that this beatitude envisions conflict between the members of the disciples’ community and the external society, the fact that God serves as father to this fictional family of sons and brothers would become even more significant. In such a case, to enter into conflict (that is, to publicly acknowledge a challenge as such from an outsider) would be to permit conflict between God and the external challenger. The reason is that, since God is father of this quasi-family, his honor is bound up with theirs and it is at stake so long as they are identified as his sons.

Since it is fundamental that a real challenge to one’s honor can come only from one of equal status, the person of clearly superior status does not acknowledge the existence of an affront. Vindicating a clearly superior claim is unnecessary (see Pitt-Rivers International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 1968:508; Malina The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 1981:30). Therefore, in the case at hand, to engage in conflict with outsiders could only be the equivalent of a denial of one’s membership in the family of God, whose status, supremely honorable, outranks all possible challengers. Jesus’ silence before his prosecutors, and his suggestion that his disciples do likewise represent a sense of uninfringeable honor. This uninfringeable honor is rooted in the relationship asserted in the title “sons of God.” Its not so secular equivalent is the notion that the king can do no wrong, which really means that the sovereign cannot be charged in a court, that he must answer to no one else.

Overall, then, the beatitudes provide evidence of the self-understanding of the community to whom the laws in the sermon apply. They are promises of divine favor, essentially promises of honorable status before God, given to those identified with Jesus and his disciples as the quasi-family, the children of God. With the beatitudes as an introductory set of greetings, the sermon embodies a theological assertion of the ultimate righteousness/honor of this community in a code defining its life.

IV.    Symbolic Meaning and Historical Reality

Two opposed conclusions may be drawn from the symbolic interpretation presented. The theologically naive may conclude that the community’s self-definition fundamentally agrees with its actual composition, character and circumstances. We would suppose that in the midst of a hostile external society this community governed itself as an ideal family of God, a true community of selfless equals. The historian will observe that how the community understood itself does not tell us very much about what it in fact was like. The historian’s skepticism about the community’s ideology as historical record is well-founded.

That said, does a symbolic interpretation yield any clues about the historical reality of Matthew’s community? The answer is: more than the historian might suspect, and less by far than the naive presumes. First and foremost, because the social scientist knows something of the track record of communities with a strong group sense and a low grid in which the dynamics of honor and shame are at work, we begin with the suspicion that Matthew’s community was subject to considerable factionalism and inner strife. The task of marking boundaries separating the unrighteous from the righteous elect is seldom completed when grid is low. Such a community lacks internal organization, having no clear pattern of roles and role expectations on which it can rely in evaluating its members’ conduct. While uncertain of its own internal procedures, it asserts the superiority of its life over all outside the group. The only options it sees are: good within, and evil without its boundaries. This is because degrees of good or gradations of evil within would threaten the clarity the community gives to its external boundaries. Thus, the severe interpretations of observance easily become weapons not only against the outsiders, but against insiders to be excluded (see Douglas Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology 1970:143).

The primary evidence of intense factionalism within the actual community, which contrasts with its own self-portrait, lies in the intensified, nearly fanatical observance the code presents. But this evidence is bolstered by a series of statements which clearly envision a spirit of excommunication. The salt without taste is to “be thrown out and trodden under foot” (5:13). “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is to be cut down” (7:15). To many who say “Lord, Lord,” “will I declare ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evil one’ ” (7:22). At a lower level, less than brotherly peace is evident in the detailed prescription in 5:22 about anger, insult and calling one’s brother “fool.”

Finally, in one instance, violation of the proscriptions against oaths, the source of the contamination is identified as “from evil,” with a variant reading saying “from the evil one” (5:37). This reading conforms to the spirit of the warning against “false prophets” (7:15), who would be seen as contaminating the community with the spirit/power of the evil one. In other words, where great emphasis is focused on purity, honor and righteousness, we must suspect the presence of correlative attention to impurity, shame and evil. When routinely accepted means of establishing these classifications are lacking, then with charismatic fervor disorganized members of the group will struggle over them.

Perhaps the effort to exclude the righteous of old Israel serves as a mask for these internal conflicts. Possibly, marking clear boundaries between disciples and outsiders was a task which could mobilize community solidarity. But reductionist explanations such as these go beyond the sermon’s statement, however plausible. Because the symbolic interpretation prefers to concentrate on what the symbols express, it prefers to leave unresolved the issue of how closely the ideological and the historical descriptions would approximate each other.


From our study we may draw the following conclusions:

(1).    Cross-cultural models drawn from cultural anthropology complement other forms of criticism by drawing attention to tacit understandings on which the meaning of texts depends.

(2).    The hypothesis that the experience of the bounded social unit (the group variable) and the fit between values and experience (the grid variable) provides a basis for comparing the most general cultural patterns in the biblical world with our own.

(3).    Focused on norms that govern the community life of disciples of Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount gives primary attention to internal relationships among the disciples, secondary attention to the relationship between the community and the external society, and little if any attention to merely personal concerns, marking this community as strong-group. These norms envision clear group boundaries established by a variety of strategies that set the disciples apart as righteous in contrast to the unrighteous non-disciples outside the community.

(4).    In a hierarchical world, Matthew’s community was a community of equals; in a world in which power relationships were carefully defined, access to power outside the community was perceived as at best uncertain, while power relationships within the community were undefined. Thus, the means available to Matthew’s community provided insufficient basis for expecting the realization of its values in everyday life, making it low-grid.

(5).    Consistent with the pattern by which strong-group cultures typically give a prominent place to the concept of honor, we find Matthew’s community defending its righteousness by various strategies that define the community as the family of God. It thereby claims divine righteousness as its own, thus reversing the outsider’s negative judgment which had been given on the basis of the community’s association with Jesus, who had died in apparent shame or dishonor.

(6).    The beautitudes are the clearest statement of this claim to righteousness/honor. Each beatitude describes the actual state of deprivation in which the community lives, and then asserts the disciples’ happiness in relationship to the kingdom of God, thus reversing the expectation of shame. Replicating the community’s socially defensive strategy, the beatitudes’ affirmation of sonship entails total reliance on God to vindicate its honor, declining contests with hostile outsiders.

(7).    Thus, the community code, taken with the introductory proclamation of blessing in the beatitudes, serves to define both the identity and the way of life of Matthew’s community among themselves, as well as in reference to their neighbors and God.

Mary Douglas has said of ancient Israel:

… we should rather marvel at the way their legislators organized their social relations. Because this is the level of creativity which lays the groundwork for distinctive world views. The choices people make about how they deal with one another are the real material which concerns the student of comparative religion. (1970: 122)

I hope that it has been clear enough that this investigation took the legal code as its starting point, and suggested that the code asserted certain relationships between those bound by it with each other, with the surrounding society, and with their God.

This method cannot answer every question about so complex a text as the Sermon on the Mount. It does, however, allow us to fill in gaps in understanding which other forms of biblical criticism miss. Where clear documentation or evidence about the context of a given biblical author or work is lacking, more careful attention to the manner in which ordinary interpersonal and community interactions were regulated can help us uncover the tacit meanings held by the communities in and for which various biblical writings were produced.

A study such as this also allows an interpretation of religious life that more nearly approximates the layperson’s understanding of religion as a network of rules and symbols. This is a two-edged sword, however, for we at once show that those represented in the traditional sources saw religion as a set of rules or concrete relationships, and also that the rules themselves are meaningful in a world so different from our own as to require fairly radical reformulation.

Works Consulted

Barraclough, G.

1978    Main Trends in History. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers.

Brown, R.E.

1984    The Churches the Apostles Left Behind. New York: Paulist Press.

Douglas, M.

1966    Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Douglas, M.

1970    Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York Pantheon.

Douglas, M.

1975    Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Douglas, M., and B. Isherwood

1979    The World of Goods. New York: Basic Books.

Elliott, J.H.

1981    A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of I Peter, Its Situation and Strategy. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Finley, M.I.

1981    The Ancient Economy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Friedrich, G.,

1968    Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: vol VI. G. W. Bromiley, trans. & ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Gager, J. G.

1975    Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Geertz, C.

1973    The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books.

Hodges, R. and D. Whitehouse

1983    Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Isenberg, S. R. and D. E. Owen

1977    “Bodies, Natural and Contrived: The Work of Mary Douglas,” Religious Studies Review 3: 1–17.

Malherbe, A. J.

1977    Social Aspects of Early Christianity. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Malina, B.J.

1981    The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta: John Knox.

Malina, B.J.

1982    “The Social Sciences and Biblical Interpretation.” Interpretation 37:229–242.

Meeks, W.A.

1983    The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Neusner, J.

1984    “Mishnah and Messiah.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 14:3–10.

Polanyi, M.

1964    Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Pitt-Rivers, J.

1968    “Honor.” Vol. VI, pp. 503–11 in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, D.L. Sills, ed. New York: Macmillan.

Przybylski, B.

1980    Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Senior, D.

1983    What Are They Saying About Matthew? New York: Paulist Press.

Stendahl, K.

1962    “Matthew.” Pp. 769–98 in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, M. Black and H. H. Rowley, eds. London: Nelson.

Wyatt-Brown, B.

1982    Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

The Idea of Purity in Mark’s Gospel

Jerome H. Neyrey

Weston School of Theology


Mary Douglas’ “idea of purity” refers to the systematic structures, classifications and evaluations which shape social groups. “There is a place for everything and everything in its place”—a saying applicable to people, places, times, things, etc. What is “in place” is pure, what is not is a pollution. In Mark, Jesus appears to be out of place most of the time, dealing with people he should avoid, doing unconventional things and not observing customs about places and times. While Mark presents Jesus challenging the Jewish purity system, he also describes him as reforming it in favor of other core values. He is “the Holy One of God” and agent of God’s reform: he is authorized to cross lines and to blur classifications as a strategy for a reformed covenant community which is more inclusive than the sectarian synagogue. As God’s agent of holiness, Jesus makes sinners holy and the sick whole. Yet he draws clear lines between those in his group and those outside, setting up distinguishing criteria for membership and for exclusion in the reformed covenant community.


This essay takes its inspiration from a series of studies which are becoming increasingly influential in New Testament research. In 1966 British anthropologist Mary Douglas published her groundbreaking book, Purity and Danger. This and her subsequent work, (1973), formulated anthropological concepts which would have important implications for students of the Bible. In these two works, Douglas spoke as a cultural anthropologist on how societies classified and arranged their worlds. The process of ordering a sociocultural system was called “purity,” in contrast to “pollution,” which stands for the violation of the classification system, its lines and boundaries. The term “purity” became a jargon word for the general principle that all peoples tend to structure their worlds according to some system of order and classification. The study of “purity,” then, is the study of symbolic systems (Douglas, 1966:34). This concept was employed with considerable success by Jacob Neusner first in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism (1973) and then in a series of articles (1975, 1978, 1979). Among New Testament writers, Bruce Malina applied Douglas’ model of purity in ch. 6 of his New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (1981).

While “purity” refers to the general principle of classifying and structuring a society, it has another meaning. One may speak of the specific purity rules and norms of a given group. Ancient Jews, for example, had specific purity rules which classified foods as clean or unclean, which ranked objects according to degrees of uncleanness, which identified people as fit or unfit to enter Israel’s temple, etc. As well as one might ask to what degree a group has a general system of purity, it is also fair to inquire into the more immediate norms whereby specific persons, objects, etc. are declared sacred/profane, clean/unclean or pure/polluted. “Purity,” then, is used in two senses in this essay:

1.    the general, abstract system of ordering and classifying;

2.    the specific purity rules whereby persons, objects, places etc. are labelled pure or polluted in a given social group.

Part One: The Idea of Purity

A.    “Purity”

What is meant by “purity”? It is an abstract way of interpreting data. Purity is best understood in terms of its binary opposite, “dirt.” When something is out of place or when it violates the classification system in which it is set (Douglas, 1966:35), it is “dirt.” A farmer working in his field is covered with dust and chaff, his shoes caked with mud and dung. This is appropriate to the outdoors work of farming during the day; it is what is expected of fields and barns. But should that farmer come inside after the day’s work, wearing those same dirt-covered overalls and those same dung-covered shoes, and sit in his wife’s living room, his farm dirtiness, so appropriate outside, is impurity inside. The wrong thing appears in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smoking is socially permitted in most places at most time; but it is thoroughly inappropriate to light up in a church pew during the sermon on Sunday morning. Children go to movies; but a child at an adult film at midnight is out of place.

The idea of “dirt” is pivotal to Douglas’ exposition of “purity” for two reasons:

It (dirt) implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique isolated event. Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements (Douglas, 1966:35).

Let us speak more about the system of ordering and classifying, the system of purity. We all draw lines in our world relative to things, persons, places, activities and times. These lines tell us what and who belong when and where. The old saw summed it up: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Because these lines help us to classify and arrange our world according to some dominant principle, they convey through their structural arrangement the abstract values of the social world of which we are a part (Malina, 1981:25–27, 124–26). Our culture is intelligible to us in virtue of our classification system, the lines we draw, and the boundaries we erect.

Purity refers to the cultural system and to the organizing principle of a group. Douglas notes that “culture, in the sense of public standardized values of a community, mediates the experience of individuals. It provides in advance some basic categories, a positive pattern in which ideas and values are tidily ordered” (1966:38–39). “Purity,” then, is an abstract way of dealing with the values, maps and structures of a given social group (1966:34–35). It provides a map or series of maps which diagram the group’s cultural system and locate “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

B.    The Principle of Purity and its Rules in Judaism

In the Old Testament, we regularly come across statements such as “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2) and “Their flesh you shall not eat, their carcasses you shall not touch; they are unclean to you” (Lev 11:8). There is no doubt that ancient Israel had a keen sense of purity and pollution. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to present a detailed investigation of the genesis and development of Jewish notions of “holy” and “unclean,” Mary Douglas makes several general suggestions (1966:48–57) apropos of the idea of purity in the Old Testament.

“Be ye holy, as I am holy.” Holiness, an attribute of God, resides in God’s power to bless and to curse. “God’s work through the blessing is essentially to create order, through which men’s affairs prosper” (Doug las, 1966:50). When the blessing is withdrawn, confusion occurs, with barrenness and pestilence (Deut 28:15–24). God’s premier blessing act was the ordering of creation, when time was structured into work and rest days, when creatures were created in their pure forms (no hybrids, no unclean animals), when all creatures were assigned their proper foods, as well as their proper place in creation. Creation, the ultimate act of ordering and classifying the world, was the original map. Holiness in turn involves “keeping distinct the categories of creation”; it involves correct definition, discrimination, and order (Soler, 1976:24–30).

Creation’s expression of ordering the world is an abstract concept, buried in the cultural history of Israel. But it was mediated to the Jews of the post-biblical period through the specific rules surrounding Israel’s temple (Neusner, 1979:103–127). The abstract order of creation determined specific purity rules for the temple system:

1.    what animals may be offered: only “holy” animals, viz., those which accord with the definition of a clean animal and which are physically perfect;

2.    who may offer them: a “holy” priest, who has perfect blood lines, who is in perfect physical condition, and who is in a state of purity;

3.    who may participate in the sacrifice: only Israelites, and only those with whole bodies (Lev 21:16–20);

4.    where the offering is to be made: in Jerusalem’s temple, which is a microcosm of creation

5.    when the offerings are to be made and what offering is appropriate on which occasion.

The temple system, then, is a major mediation or replication of the idea of order and purity established in creation.

Although only priests need observe the specific rules of purity, there were Jews in Jesus’ time who would extend them to the people of Israel at large, so that all people may be holy, even as temple and priests are holy (Neusner, 1973a:82–83; Fennelly, 1983:277–283). We turn now to investigate some of the concrete examples of how all persons, places, things, activities, and times were ordered and set apart. For as these are mapped, they embody and express the idea of purity.

C.    Specific Jewish Purity Maps

I said above that “purity” is a map of a social system which coordinates and classifies things according to their appropriate place. In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, there were many such maps; for things, places, persons, and times can all be mapped. We began with a map of places. M. Kelim provides an example of how places, i.e. the Land of Israel, are mapped according to a purity system.

There are ten degrees of holiness:

1.    The Land of Israel is holier than any other land …

2.    the walled cities (of the land of Israel) are still more holy …

3.    Within the walls (of Jerusalem) is still more holy …

4.    The Temple Mount is still more holy …

5.    The Rampart is still more holy …

6.    The Court of the Women is still more holy …

7.    The Court of the Israelites is still more holy …

8.    The Court of the Priests is still more holy …

9.    Between the Porch and the Altar is still more holy …

10.    The sanctuary is still more holy … The Holy of Holies is still more holy … (m. Kelim 1.6–9).

The list is very informative. It indicates direction: one moves from the outside toward the center. Gentile territory is outside of Israel and is not holy at all; it is off the map entirely. But all of Israel is holy; it is on the map. As though one were ascending a series of concentric circles, one travels upward and inward toward the center of holiness, the Temple. The center of the Temple is the Holy of Holies, God’s altar and throne, wherein God is “enthroned above the cherubim.” It is, then, the center of the universe, the navel of the world. The direction of the map suggests the principle of classification: holiness (or “purity”) is measured in terms of proximity to the Temple, the center of the map. Everything else is classified and rated as “holy” in proximity to that center.

The Mishnah and Tosefta offer a map of persons which classifies and ranks the people of Israel according to a purity system. T. Megillah gives the following map of the people of Israel:

1.    Priests

2.    Levites

3.    Israelites

4.    Converts

5.    Freed slaves

6.    Disqualified priests (illegitimate children of priests)

7.    Netins (temple slaves)

8.    Mamzers (bastards)

9.    Eunuchs

10.    Those with damaged testicles

11.    Those without a penis (t. Meg 2.7).

The clue to this map of people lies in what holiness (or “purity”) means. First, holiness means wholeness. And so people with damaged bodies are ranked last; their lack of wholeness signals a corresponding lack of holiness. People with damaged family lines are ranked second-to-last, for their wholeness is also defective. Second, the ranking according to holiness also has to do with one’s standing vis-a-vis the Temple. People defective either in body or family lines are on the perimeter of the Temple; converts may stand closer; still closer to the center are full Israelites, and closest of all are Levites and priests. This map of people, then, replicates the map of places which we just observed. This classification list, while most complete in t. Meg, is found in a number of other places (m. Kid. 4.1; m. Hor. 3.8; t. Rosh Has 4.1) (Jeremias, 1969: 271–272).

The map of persons classified them in a very practical way, for it determines who may marry whom. Marriage within one’s own rank was very important. One’s social position is determined by it, and hence, one’s place on the map of Israel. It is not surprising, then, that we have marriage maps which indicate ranking and permissible/impermissible unions (Malina, 1981:110–113, 131–133).

Ten family stocks came up from Babylon: the priestly, levitic, and Israelitish stocks, the impaired priestly stocks, the proselyte, freedman, bastard and Nathin stocks, and the shetuki and asufi stocks. The priestly, levitic and Israelitish stocks may intermarry; impaired priestly stocks, proselyte and freedman stocks may intermarry; the proselyte, freeman, bastard, Nathin, shetuki, and asufi stocks may intermarry (m. Kid. 4.1 emphasis added).

There are three main circles of society mapped out here: a) full Israelites (priests, Levites, Israelites), b) slightly blemished Israelites (impaired priestly stock, proselytes and freedmen), and c) gravely blemished Israelites (bastards, Nathin, shetuki, asufi).

One’s social status in Israel was ascribed through birth and blood. And so one married within one’s rank and above, if possible. But one never married below. The priests must marry priestly stock: a completely closed system. Levites may marry full Israelites and maintain full status. But their marriage to proselytes, freeman or priestly bastards was a lowering of pedigree and social status. Below even these folk are the temple slaves (Nathin), the fatherless (shetuki) and the foundlings (asufi) (Malina, 1981:131–35).

While intermarriage is the reason for classification, the operative principle is the degree of purity or holiness attributed to these spe cific families and groups. Without great violence to the marriage maps above, one may put them alongside the maps of places and persons and note the following correlations. Only priests may enter the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies; they are a people set apart for a space set apart. They may marry only within a clan which is set apart. Levites attend the outer parts of the sanctuary area; they too are a group set apart for a space set apart. As a spatially restricted people, they have restricted marriage opportunities. Full Israelites may stand in the general Court of the Israelites; their marriage partners are less restricted. But those of genealogical deficiency (Gentiles, foundlings, bastards, fatherless) are situated still further away from the holy place. Eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and sexually deformed people are still further away from the center of the temple. Marriage for enuchs and sexually deformed people is impossible; and with this impotency goes restricted membership in the clan. And so the marriage map replicates the maps of place and people in Israel. According to a purity system, it ascribes them their appropriate social status in proximity to the Temple, the yardstick of purity. Geography replicates social structure.

Although the lists in the Mishnah and Tosefta indicate that “Israelites” constitute an undifferentiated block of people in Israel, that block may be further broken down and classified. A more detailed map of persons can be drawn of Jewish society. After all, “a place for everything and everything in its place.” First, we know of a basic distinction made in the first century between observant or non-observant Jews. In Acts 4:13, Peter and John are classified by the observant elite as “uneducated, common men,” that is amme haretz (Oppenheimer) who neither knew the Law and its purity concerns nor cared about them. Acts 22:3 and 26:5–6, on the other hand, insist that Paul be understood as an urban, knowledgeable and serious observer of the Law: “I was brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of law of our fathers, being zealous for God” (22:3) … “According to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee” (26:5). The same distinction between observant and non-observant Jews is found in John 7. The chief priests and Pharisees distinguish themselves from the officers and crowds who are impressed by Jesus. “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who does not know the law, are accursed” (7:47–48). The distinction between observant and non-observant Israelites is conceived geographically. Those in Jerusalem (i.e. those close to the temple) are perceived as concerned with Jerusalem’s temple and with purity. The “people of the land” (am haaretz) are just that, people who live apart from the city and its temple; they live in the countryside, in villages, even in Galilee of the Gentiles, which is far removed from the temple and its purity concerns (Meyers 1981:31–47).

Second, even among observant Israelites further classification was possible. 1. We know of Qumran covenanters who considered the present priesthood of the temple to be impure and invalid. Their sense of the lines and boundaries of purity was very strict; they could not abide living in a polluted city, worshipping in a polluted temple, which was administered by unclean priests. They moved out of this polluted space to a new place where purity concerns could be strictly observed. They were positively revered by many in Israel (Josephus, War 2, 119–161). 2. Pharisees also were concerned with purity lines and boundaries. While not part of the priestly urban elite, they kept the same purity codes as the priests and so would rank, at least in their own eyes, as above the masses and in some way equal to the priests in purity, if not in blood. As their name signifies, they “set themselves apart” from the masses of Israel (Safrai/Stern: II.612). 3. Notice should also be given to the scribes or sages of Israel at this time. These non-priestly people were charged with the promotion of the Torah and its dominance in all aspects of life. Although some sages were Pharisees (Gamaliel the Elder, Simeon ben Gamaliel, Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai), not all were nor need be. They founded houses of study in Israel and so developed into a special class which was passionately concerned with purity.

Third, full Israelites who are non-observant may be further distinguished. Public sinners, such as tax collectors and prostitutes, can be distinguished from the masses. They are, at best, on the margins of the covenant map. Also on the margins are physically unclean folk such as lepers, menstruating women, the blind, and the lame. According to the Law, these last people are unclean and may “not approach to offer the bread of his God”: “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or a man with an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles” (Lev 21:16–20). There are, then, those who have put themselves on the perimeter of the purity map (sinners) and those who find themselves put there because of their physical lack of wholeness (sick, deformed).

Fourth, even observant Israelites may pass through stages of purity and uncleanness. One can and should know one’s place in the purity system at all times, but for this one needs a specific map of impurities. M. Kelim 1.5 lists “ten degrees of uncleanness in men,” which classifies the contaminant, how long he is contaminated, and what must be done to remove the respective degree of contamination. In that same tractate, a formal hierarchy of uncleanness is mapped:

1.    There are things which convey uncleanness by contact (e.g. a dead creeping thing, male semen) …

2.    They are exceeded by carrion …

3.    They are exceeded by him that has connexion with a menstruant …

4.    They are exceeded by the issue of him that has a flux, by his spittle, his semen, and his urine …

5.    They are exceeded by (the uncleanness of) what is ridden upon (by him that has a flux) …

6.    (The uncleanness of) that is ridden upon (by him that has a flux) is exceeded by what he lies upon …

7.    (The uncleanness of) what he lies upon is exceeded by the uncleanness of him that has a flux … (m. Kelim 1.3).

The uncleanness of a man is exceeded by the uncleanness of a woman, whose uncleanness is exceeded by that of a leper, then by that of a corpse (m. Kelim 1.4). It is safe to say that Israel was both intensely concerned with purity and with the appropriate lines and boundaries which classified everything in its proper place—even uncleanness.

Times may be mapped as well. The second division of the Mishnah, Moed, contains a list of sacred times, a list which suggests a hierarchy of those times:

1. Shabbath & Erubin


2. Pesahim

(Feast of Passover)

3. Yoma

(Day of Atonement)

4. Sukkoth

(Feast of Tabernacles

5. Yom Tob

(Festival Days)

6. Rosh ha-Shana

(Feast of New Years)

7. Taanith

(Days of Fasting)

8. Megillah

(Feast of Purim)

9. Moed Katan

(Mid-Festival Days)

Sabbath goes back to creation, when God himself rested; it is the most holy of times. Passover is the feast commemorating the creation of Israel, when God led them out of Egypt; it ranks next in sacredness. Then follow other major holy days, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth and Rosh ha-Shana. These are followed in turn by lesser holy days and festivals (Yom Tob, Purim, etc.). The Mishnah gives specific rules governing these times, when they begin, what one may or must do, what one may not do, etc. Times, then, may be classified and mapped.

D.    Purity Means Boundaries

If purity means maps and classification systems which locate things where they ought to be, it follows that considerable attention will be given to the lines and boundaries of these maps. The prime activity of a group with a strong purity system will be the making and maintenance of these lines and boundaries (Douglas, 1966:chs 7–8). “The image of society,” says Douglas, “has form; it has external boundaries, margins, internal structure” (Douglas 1966:114).

The external boundaries which distinguish the Jews of Jesus’ time from other peoples can be clearly identified. We are all familiar with the Jewish insistence on 1) kosher diet, 2) circumcision, and 3) observance of the Sabbath. Jews could be identified by special times (Sabbath), special things (diet) and special bodily marks (circumcision). These three observances serve as lines, for they distinguish Jews from non-Jews. They indicate who is “in” the covenant group and who is “out.” By making such things important, Jews reinforced their own group identity and built the boundaries which distinguished them from non-Jews (see Lev 20:24–26). Outsiders regularly regarded Jews as unsociable and anti-social because of these customs, for they recognized them for what they are, the boundaries of a map (Smallwood: 123).

Students of biblical literature are well aware of the particularistic character of Judaism. Acts 10:28 makes it clear: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” Jubilees confirms this” “Separate yourselves from the nations, and eat not with them. And do not according to their works, and become not their associate. For all their works are unclean, and all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness” (22:16).

Jews are also concerned with things on the margins of lines and boundaries. Because of lack of bodily wholeness, lepers, the blind, the lame, eunuchs, etc., are not whole or holy Israelites (see Lev 21:16–20). They are marginal to the covenant people, residing on the fringes or borders of Jewish society. According to Douglas, this concern with margins is replicated in the Jewish classification of certain animals and foods as unclean. The world map is clearly composed of air, earth and water. To be clean (i.e. within one’s proper boundary), an animal must fit completely within the concept of what it means to be an air or sea or earth animal. On earth, for example, four-legged creatures hop, jump or walk. Any creature which is not so equipped for the right kind of locomotion violates the classification system; it is out of place, marginal, and so unclean (Douglas 1966:55). Earth animals which may be eaten are those which have a cloven hoof and which chew the cud; they satisfy the definition of what constitutes a genuine earth creature. But the camel, the pig, the hare and the hyrax either do not chew the cur or do not have cloven hooves; they are defective, marginal, hence unclean (Douglas 1966:39). Sea creatures are fish which have scales. But sea creatures which do not have scales (shell fish) are defective, marginal, hence unclean. According to Douglas, “to be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity, perfection of the individual and of the kind” (1966:54). And so, what does not fully fit a determined definition is not within its proper lines; it is a hybrid, an ambiguous thing and ambiguity is dangerous and polluting. (1966:94–98)

This fear of margins is replicated in concern over the margins of the physical body (Douglas 1966:115, 120–121). What seeps out of the body passes over its boundaries, whether urine, faeces, semen or menses. According to m. Kelim uncleanness extends to “the issue of him that has a flux, by his spittle, his semen, and his urine” (1.3). Such marginal substances are unclean. Flaking skin indicates a marginal disorder, whether it be “leprosy,” scabs or a skin disease (Pilch 1981:111). The person who suffers an involuntary “marginal emission” (i.e. nocturnal emission for men, menstruation for women) is unclean. Marginal effluviae are themselves unclean and contaminating; they render the person with the flux unclean as well as people who come in contact with that person or his/her effluviae.

We mentioned above the strong sense of internal lines and boundaries, which describe the social structure of Jewish society at this time. I offer the following map from the New Testament as an illustration of how Israelites are internally ranked according to a purity system. This map should be seen as supplementing the map of persons discussed above. Of course, Gentiles are not on the map of God’s covenant people (see Acts 10:28; 11:3), nor are Samaritans (John 4:9).

1.    Dead Israelites: concern over Jesus’ dead body (John 19:31);

2.    Morally unclean Israelites: tax collectors & sinners (Luke 15:1–2; Matt 9:10–13);

3.    Bodily unclean Israelites: lepers (Mark 1:40–45; Luke 17:11–14), poor, lame, maimed, blind (Luke 14:13; see Lev 21:18–21), menstruants (Mark 5:24–34);

4.    Unobservant Israelites: Peter and John (Acts 4:13), Jesus (John 7:15, 49);

5.    Observant Israelites: the rich young man (Mark 10:50–51), Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 2:25–38);

6.    Pharisees (Mark 7:3–5; Luke 18:11–12);

7.    Scribes and Priests (Luke 10:31–32);

8.    Chief Priests (John 18:28; Heb 7:18–28).

This map is very important. Since one can and should know one’s purity rating at all times (see maps of impurities, m. Kelim 1.3–5, above), one needs a code for classifying people to know where they stand in the system.

Observant Jews will be concerned that the proper lines and boundaries be maintained. Marginal objects as well as people are to be shunned and kept away from the space of full and holy Israelites. Persons of lesser purity rank should not intrude on the space of those of higher purity status; this would apply in the case of intermarriage and other forms of social intercourse. It is not surprising, then, that a group like the Pharisees built a “fence” around its life. To keep the core clean and pure, one extended the boundary around that core, put a fence on the perimeter, and guarded that outer “fence.” Hence the chief rule was “Make a fence around the Law” (m. Aboth 1.1). And if a fence was appropriate around the Law as a whole, it was appropriate around individual aspects of the Law. Hence a proliferation of fences might be expected: “The tradition is a fence around the Law; tithes are a fence around riches; vows are a fence around abstinence; a fence around wisdom is silence” (m. Aboth 3.14).

E.    Body and Boundaries

We have seen how purity boundaries are fixed on the map of places (see the “10 degree of holiness,” m. Kelim 1.6–9), which locates in ever-narrowing, concentric circles the geographical degrees of purity in Israel. That map was followed by a map of people which classified Israelites according to purity ranking (t. Meg. 2.7). There is still another map where lines and boundaries are drawn, viz., the personal human body. According to Douglas, the human body is a replica of the social body, a symbol of society:

The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious (Douglas, 1966:115).

The map of the body, then, replicates the map of the social body. A principle can be drawn from this insight: as the social body draws lines, restricts admission, expels undesirables and guards its entrances and exits, so this tends to be replicated in the control of the physical body. “Body control,” says Douglas, “is an expression of social control”; and conversely, “abandonment of bodily control in ritual responds to the requirements of a social experience which is being expressed” (Douglas 1973:98–100). “The physical experience of the body … sustains a particular view of society” (Douglas 1973:93). We must be prepared to see in the human body a map of society.

This means that in a culture where there are strong purity concerns and clear lines and boundaries, we should be sensitive to the map of the body, especially how certain following bodily features are treated: 1) nudity & clothing; 2) orifices of the body (genitals, anus, mouth, nose, eyes); 3) the surfaces of the body and the head.

1. Before the first sin, nudity was not unclean or shameful (Gen 2:25). But after that sin, it was equated with shame (Gen 3:10–11; see also Isa 20:4; 47:3; Rev 3:18 & 16:15). Nudity is cited by Adam as the reason why he hid from God. Nudity, then, means uncleanness and separation from God; to be naked is in some way to be apart from God’s covenant, favor, and protection (Lam 4:21; Ezek 16:39; 23:29; Hos 2:3; Nah 3:5). Nudity, then, means impurity. This is reflected in Ex 20:26: “You shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.” Nudity violates that place’s sacredness (see Luke 10:30; John 21:7). Alternately, a clothed body is presumed holy. God drew near to the naked maiden, Israel, and clothed her (Ezek 16:7–8), thus making her God’s holy and chosen one. The principle is clear: clothing replicates the boundaries or fences defining what is holy. A body without boundaries or fences is a body with no clear place on the map and a body open to penetration by one and all.

These cultural values were quite alive and well in the first century. For example, according to Josephus the Essenes, whose purity concerns were very strict, wore clothing when taking their baths (War 2,161). Even when going to the privy, they never exposed their nakedness (War 2,148; 1QS 7:13). Concern for purity lines, then, is replicated in the demand for a clothed body.

2. It is expected that when purity concerns are very strong, this will be evident in the care given to the entrances and exits of the social body. Who is an Israelite? how does one become such? who is an apostate? are all important questions. This is replicated in concern for who may enter what court or room in the temple (2 Chron 23:19). Entrances, gates, and doors become significant places. This in turn is replicated in the concern given to the orifices of the body. The genitals, anus, ears, and the mouth are all carefully guarded and great attention is paid to what passes in or out of them.

For example, a) the genital orifices are of great concern. Semen and menses are unclean (Lev 15:16, 19). A priest must abstain from sexual intercourse the night before he offers sacrifice (Lev 22:4). A male nocturnal emission will render the emitter unclean; a menstruating woman is very unclean. Also in this line, we noticed earlier the great concern for rules for intermarriage (m. Kid. 4.1), which are rules governing the valid and invalid crossing of the genital orifice. Circumcision should be understood in this framework; it is a way of denoting a male genital orifice as one which is set apart, and therefore holy. b) Excretory orifices are also carefully guarded, and what crosses them (urine and faeces) is unclean and polluting. c) The orifice of the mouth is also carefully regulated. The dietary laws make quite explicit what may or may not pass through the orifice. In line with this, it matters who eats with whom; holy people eat holy food together, but an unclean person at such a table is unclean and polluting (Neusner, 1973a:86).

3. The surface of the body is also a focus of purity concerns. As regards the head, loose and dishevelled hair is not permitted; rather, braided hair, which is carefully wrapped around the head, is the rule (Murphy-O’Connor: 484). The head must have a clear and tidy surface, viz., fixed boundaries. What is loose is unclean (see Luke 7:38). Concern for the surface is shown in the horror displayed toward skin diseases and leprosy in the Bible. Flaking skin, scabs, eruptions on the skin, and “leprosy” are all unclean and render the sufferer unclean. Smooth, whole skin is considered pure and clean.

F.    Purity, Boundaries and Pollution

If purity means clear lines and firm borders, then pollution refers to what crosses those boundaries or what resides in the margins and has no clear place in the system. In previous discussions we identified unclean persons and things as:

a).    people who are not physically whole in body or family lines,

b).    people who either experience emissions from bodily margins or who come in contact with these emissions or with the emitter,

c).    foods and animals which do not fit clearly within definition boundaries.

A person, then, begins in a given state of purity, but that can be lost either because s/he crossed a boundary and entered space more holy than s/he is permitted to enter (Frymer-Kensky, 1983:405) or because something else less holy crossed over and entered his/her space (Douglas, 1966:122). Crossing of boundaries, then, means pollution. The maps of places, persons, things, and times are important for knowing just where the boundary lines are.

The appropriate strategy in this type of world is defensive. What is called for is: a) avoidance of contact with what is either too holy or marginal or unclean (see Luke 10:31–32; Acts 10:14 & 28) or b) reinforcement of boundaries and purity concerns (see Mark 7:1–4 and the rabbis’ “fences”). People who continually have even passing contact with sinners, lepers, blind, lame, menstruants, corpses and the like are perceived as spurning the map of persons. People who show no respect for holy places such as the temple (see Mark 11:15–17) are crossing dangerous lines on the map of places. People who “do what is not lawful on the Sabbath” disregard the map of times, and would be judged in some way as rejecting the system. Such people would be rated as unclean. Not only are they themselves polluted, they become a source of pollution to others.

Part Two: Purity in Mark

According to Jewish religion and culture, Jesus would be expected to be a defensive person and avoid all contact with uncleanness. He would be expected to respect the lines and boundaries of Jewish observance, which are indicated in the maps of places, persons, things, and times. “Holiness,” defined as separateness from all things unclean, defective, or marginal, is indicated in behavior which keeps one separate from uncleanness and which maintains the classification system. Yet in Mark’s gospel, we find a description of Jesus who seems to trample on all the lines and boundaries of the culture of his day. It would be erroneous to assert that Mark portrays Jesus as abrogating the general purity system or that Mark was himself unconcerned with purity issues. The situation is far more complicated than that. It is incumbent on us to make a careful presentation of all Mark’s texts which deal with purity concerns and then to see what Mark’s Jesus says about purity as a structuring value in Christian life.

A.    Mark 1:21–28

During Jesus’ first miracle in 1:21–28, a demon which possessed a man in the local synagogue was confronted by Jesus. He acknowledged Jesus as his mortal enemy: “Have you come to destroy us?” and he attested to Jesus’ purity: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24). Jesus’ exorcism and the special title given him, “the Holy One of God,” are important aspects of Mark’s Christology. At a minimum, Jesus is linked with other holy figures close to God, such as the priest Aaron (“Aaron, the holy one of the Lord,” Ps 106:16) and the prophet Elisha (“this is a holy man of God,” 2 Kgs 4:9). Functionally the exorcism and the title of Jesus serve several purposes: 1) they associate Jesus with the holy God, not Satan; 2) they underscore Jesus’ authorization by God (1:22, 27); 3) they emphasize that Jesus was himself uniquely holy and pure; and 4) they indicate that Jesus engages in mortal conflict with “unclean spirits.” The exorcism is Jesus’ first public action, and so can be considered programmatic for Mark’s presentation of him. In the exorcism, Mark establishes a fundamental set of contrasts which suggest Jesus’ purity rating:



1. God’s Servant

1. Servant of Satan

2. Agent of God’s kingdom

2. Agent of Satan’s kingdom

3. Jesus: holy & pure

3. The Demon: unclean

What does it mean to emphasize Jesus’ purity? Why is it important that this be done in Jesus’ first public act? From the first half of this study we know that purity is the premier structuring value of Jewish religion and culture: “Be ye holy as I am holy” (Lev 11:44). If this is the structuring value, Jesus is proclaimed from the very beginning of his career as fully within the religious matrices of the Jewish system. It is not accidental that this narrative situates Jesus in the right place (synagogue), at the right time (on the Sabbath), and with the right people (observant Jews). Jesus, then, is holy, close to God, and enemy of uncleanness. He was no maverick, no am haaretz, no heterodox figure.

B.    Mark 1:1–13

If purity is the structuring value of Jewish social experience, it is extremely important for Mark to announce Jesus’ purity rating from the very beginning of his gospel. Mark’s prologue intentionally contains multiple attestations of Jesus’ purity from witnesses whose testimony must be taken seriously.

1. John the Baptizer testifies to Jesus’ purity. John, although a holy prophet himself, is not worthy to touch Jesus’ feet, implying Jesus’ special status as a holy figure (1:7). John testifies that Jesus will baptize (make pure) with a baptism of the Holy Spirit, thus making Jesus’ purificatory actions better than John’s own water washings (1:8). Jesus, then, is ranked holier than the holy prophet John.

2. The Holiest of Beings, God, testifies to Jesus’ purity. Jesus receives a theophany in the Jordan, as the Holy God draws near to Jesus and reveals himself to him (1:9–10). This same God, who is pleased to have Jesus in his holy presence, delights in him and calls him: “Thou art my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Jesus is thoroughly known by the all-seeing God and God sees no uncleanness in him. And God sends upon Jesus Holiness par excellence, the Holy Spirit (1:10). Jesus, then, is an intimate of God, fully within God’s circle, even if this center is not in the Temple.

3. Another figure appears in 1:12–13 who indirectly testifies to Jesus’ radical holiness. Satan, enemy of God and Uncleanness itself, attacks Jesus and tries to make him unclean; he fails. “Angels came and ministered to him” (1:13), thus showing that Jesus did not lose God’s holiness or favor through satan’s temptations.

Jesus, therefore, is shown in the company of the holy God, a holy prophet, and holy angels. Mark is not unconcerned with Jesus’ purity rating, but affirms at the very beginning of the gospel that Jesus is radically pure and close to God. Jesus’s first words, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent …” (1:15), are a call to purity; for he demands that sinne r turn from the realm of sin and seek the circle of God’s favor and holiness. But this is all happening in Galilee, far from the Temple and its system.

C.    Conflict over Jesus’ Purity

As we noted above, pure and holy Jews would maintain a defensive posture regarding their purity. Concern for purity translated into distancing oneself from all that is unclean, viz., maintenance of proper boundaries and lines. In Mark’s gospel, people with ostensibly excellent purity ratings are Jesus’ most dogged critics. Mark may maintain that Jesus is God’s “Holy One,” but not so Jesus’ critics who observe him crossing lines he ought not to cross and allowing people to cross into his space who ought to be kept at a distance. What would purity-minded people object to about Jesus in Mark’s gospel? Just about everything Jesus did! Jesus did not observe any of the maps so important to the Judaism of his day.

A.    As regards the map of people to be avoided and shunned,

    1).    Jesus came in contact with unclean people: he voluntarily touched a leper (“and he touched him” 1:41); he took a corpse by the hand (5:41).

    2).    He was touched by a menstruating woman, a traditionally unclean person (5:24–28).

    3).    Jesus called a public sinner to be an intimate: to Levi, sitting in his tax booth, he said “Follow me!” (2:13–14).

    4).    Jesus travelled extensively in Gentile territory, thus crossing boundaries he ought not to cross and exposing himself to pollution on every side. He regularly crossed the Sea of Galilee into non-kosher territory (4:35–41); he toured the “region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis” (7:31).

    5).    While on this journey, Jesus had commerce with unclean people such as the Syro-phoenician woman (7:24–30).

    6).    Jesus regularly was in contact with the possessed, the blind, the lame, and the deaf—all figures who are unclean in some way according to Lev 21:16–24.

B.    As regards the map of the body, Jesus seems not to have guarded his bodily orifices or their emissions in ways that befit purity-minded people.

    7).    He broke one of the strictest purity laws in Israel as he disregarded all dietary restrictions: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (7:19).

    8).    Contrary to all purity rules, Jesus shared meals with unclean sinners: “He sat at table in Levi’s house and many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus” (2:15).

    9).    Nor did Jesus’ disciples have regard for the surface of the body; they did not wash their hands before eating, showing unconcern for what passed through their mouths: “The Pharisees saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed” (7:2).

    10).    In what must have been shocking to Mark’s ancient audience, Jesus applied his own spittle to the eyes of a blind man (8:23) and to the tongue of a dumb person (7:33), showing disregard for bodily orifices and bodily emissions.

    11).    In the mass feedings in 6:37–44 and 8:1–10, Jesus apparently showed no concern for the purity of the folk with whom he ate or for any of the rituals to be practiced prior to eating. Common food was shared with common folk on common ground.

C.    Nor did Jesus observe the maps of time which structured Jewish life.

    12).    His disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, “doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath” (2:24). Jesus himself healed on the Sabbath (3:1–6).

D.    Nor did Jesus respect the maps of places which classified Jewish space.

    13).    Jesus thoroughly disrupted the temple system. He halted worshippers from their holy rites by chasing away those who facilitated the payment of temple tithes and the offering of gifts (11:15). It is even said that he “would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple” (11:16), which may refer to Jesus’ supposed interruption of the carrying of sacrificial vessels and offerings from the people’s court into the altar area.

    14).    Jesus’ negative attitude to temple space is clarified when it is linked with a later statement that love of God and neighbor is “worth more than all whole burnt offerings” (12:33).

    15).    Jesus’ enemies, at least, perceive him as speaking against the holy place (14:58; 15:29), a perception with which Mark apparently agreed (see 13:2). Since the temple is the chief expression of the purity system of first-century Judaism, Jesus’ “pollution” of the temple (11:15–19) and his prediction of its destruction (13:1–2) should surface as the major charges against him by the temple elite in Jerusalem (14:58; 15:29). From their perspective, in showing such contempt for its chief symbol, Jesus was rejecting the whole system.

In Galilee, moreover, Jesus’ critics noted how often he transgressed all the purity maps of his culture regarding persons, things, places, and times. They saw how often he had commerce with unclean spirits and unclean persons. And they concluded that Jesus could not be “the Holy one of God.” Since he showed such flagrant disregard for purity rules, he did not merit a high purity rating. On the contrary, he must be of Satan’s camp. Jesus’ fundamental authority as prophet and leader of God’s covenant people was called into question by critics “who came down from Jerusalem and said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul and by the prince of demons he casts out demons’ ” (3:22). The text also indicates that Jesus’ own family thought that “he is beside himself” (3:21), that is, out of line and dangerous. The initial claims of Mark (1:1–13, 21–28) are thus disputed by Jesus’ very behavior. An apology is called for.

D.    Mark 3:23–27

In response to the attack on Jesus’ purity rating in 3:21–22, Mark summarizes the significance of Jesus’ exorcisms. The exorcisms in particular prove that Jesus is indeed pure, “the Holy One of God.” First, Jesus makes an incontrovertible statement: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (3:23). Where war exists, the warring partners are not allies, but mortal enemies. This self-evident statement, then, is supported by three parallel analogies which draw out the conclusion of 3:23.

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.

If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

If Satan is risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end (3:24–26).

The exorcisms, then, prove that Jesus is the enemy of Satan, not his servant or ally. And so the testimony of the demon was correct: “Have you come to destroy us? I know that you are the Holy One of God” (1:24).

Mark climaxes the apology in 3:27 with a parabolic statement about how it takes a “stronger one” to bind up a “strong” man to despoil his possessions. When the hearer of 3:27 gets the insight that Jesus is the “stronger one” and that Satan is only the “strong man,” then one remembers that John the Baptizer spoke earlier of Jesus as “the Stronger One” (1:7). The hearer then realizes that Jesus, the Stronger One, has in fact “bound the strong man” in his victory over Satan in the temptations in the desert (1:12–13). With Satan thus bound, Jesus can then “plunder his house” through successive exorcisms (1:21–28, 34, 39; 3:11–12, 15). Jesus’ purity rating is defended:

1.    He is God’s ally and Satan’s mortal enemy;

2.    He belongs to God’s kingdom and liberates those imprisoned in Satan’s realm.

3.    He has total power over Satan; he is not subject to him in any way.

And so Jesus is completely in God’s camp, fully within the circle of God’s associates, and therefore holy.

Mark’s readers understandably see striking similarities between 1:1–15 and 3:22–31. A careful re-reading of both passages indicates the extent of these parallels and how they function in the argument of the gospel.

Prologue (1:1–15)

Apology (3:22–31)


The Stronger One

“The Stronger One is coming” (1:7)

“No one enters a strong man’s house (except a stronger man) … (3:27)



“Jesus was tempted by Satan … (1:13)

“How can Satan cast out Satan” (3:23–26)


Jesus’ Spirit holy or unclean?

“He will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (1:8)

Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness (3:29)


Whose Kingdom: God’s or Satan’s?

“The kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15)

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (3:24)

Against the claims that Jesus is unclean and so cannot function as God’s agent, Mark mounts a spirited defense of Jesus’ purity rating by showing that the very evidence against Jesus is precisely the positive proof that Jesus must be God’s “Holy One” and not Satan’s servant.

It is important to note that while the normal term for the Satanic powers which possess humans is “demons,” Mark insists on calling them “unclean spirits” (1:23, 26–27; 3:11; 5:2, 8, 13; 6:7; 7:25; 9:25). Thus Mark sharpens the distinction between Jesus, the Holy One of God who had the Holy Spirit, and Satan and demons who are “unclean spirits.” The distinction is based on purity concerns.

E.    Jesus: Agent of Purity & Cleanness

Jesus is further vindicated as a holy figure when Mark shows that in all of his contacts with unclean people, Jesus does not incur pollution but imparts cleanness or wholeness to them instead. Recall that holiness is replicated in bodily wholeness.

1.    In touching the leper, Jesus is not made unclean; rather he proclaims cleanness: ” ‘Be clean.’ And immediately the lep rosy left him and he was made clean” (1:41).

2.    In dealing with the paralytic, Jesus cleansed the man of his sins (“Your sins are forgiven,” 2:5), as well as his paralysis (2:11). Jesus made him both whole and holy.

3.    In calling Levi as a disciple and in eating with sinners, Jesus acts precisely as one who restores wholeness and cleanness to God’s people, viz. “a physician”: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (2:17).

4.    In transgressing Sabbath laws, he provided food for the hungry (2:23–28) and wholeness for a man with a withered limb (3:1–6).

5.    His exorcisms liberate people bound in slavery to Satan. For example, one naked, violent, and solitary possessed man lived in a most unclean place, a graveyard (5:5). Jesus’ exorcism rehabilitated him so that, when exorcised, he is found “clothed, in his right mind” and seated comfortably in a social group once more (5:15).

6.    The menstruating woman who touched Jesus is healed of her hemorrhage (5:28–29).

7.    The corpse which Jesus touched is made alive again (5:41–42).

8.    The blind man and the dumb man upon whom Jesus put his spittle are restored to sight and speech respectively (8:25; 7:35).

The Markan response to the charge that Jesus violated all of the maps of purity is very complex. First, on the level of the narrative, Jesus extends bodily wholeness, forgiveness of sins, and even life by his contact with the unclean, sinners, and the dead. He is a giver of wholeness and holiness, but is never rendered unholy himself. Second, a warrant is given in Mark for this activity. Full treatment of this would engage us in a discussion of “limit breakers,” people who are authorized to break taboos and cross prohibited boundaries. In his own way, Mark indicates that Jesus was so authorized as a “limit breaker”:

1.    God gave Jesus the Holy Spirit (1:10), which led him into the desert to be tempted by Satan (1:12–13). Jesus’ subsequent conflict with “unclean spirits” is authorized here (see “teaching with authority,” 1:22, 27).

2.    Jesus argued that he “has authority on earth to forgive sins” (2:10), which legitimates his dealings with sinners (2:1–17). He is God’s “physician” to them (2:17).

3.    Jesus has authority over the Sabbath, because “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (2:8).

Third, according to Mark, Jesus was perceived by others as totally rejecting the idea of purity by his repeated and widespread violations of the maps of purity. In Mark 7, however, the evangelist indicates that, while Jesus does not wash before eating (7:2) or keep dietary laws (7:19), he has a purity system which is expressed in rules of purity which differ from those of the Pharisees.

Whereas the Pharisees’ concern is with externals and surfaces (washings of hands, pot, cups, and vessels, 7:2–4), Jesus’ concern is with the interior and the heart:

There is nothing which by going into a man can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him (7:15).

The Pharisees guarded the external fences which had been made around the Torah, that is, “the tradition of the elders,” which extended the concerns of purity to outer or external things. In Mark, Jesus was concerned with the core or heart of the Law, the Ten Commandments (see 7:10; 10:19). Jesus, moreover, declares that their purity system is wrong and his is right:

This people (the Pharisees, in particular) honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men (7:6–7).

According to Jesus, purity does not reside on the lips or hands, but in the heart; purity is measured by the keeping of the core law of God, not the traditional “fences” of men. Alternately, pollution comes not by violation of washing or dietary rules (7:18–19), which deal only with surfaces, but with sin and vice which come from within, from the heart (7:21–22). “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (7:23).

No, according to Mark, Jesus is not abrogating the idea of purity when he violates the rules of purity. On the contrary, Jesus is reforming the rules of purity current in his day, offering his interpretation of what God wants and what makes one whole, clean, and holy.

F.    God’s Verdict on Jesus’ Purity

Mark’s basic concern to affirm the purity of Jesus affects other aspects of his presentation of Jesus. For a Jew of Jesus’ time, purity would be intimately bound up with obedience. Since the laws of Israel comprehensively order one’s life according to that particular system, obe dience to them would indicate one’s standing before God, one’s holiness. Such is the import of Paul’s boast: “As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:5–6). Although Jesus is portrayed as not obeying some of the traditional purity laws, he is presented, as we shall see, as a figure who is fundamentally obedient to God.

Since God is ultimately the final reference point and arbiter of purity, it matters greatly how God evaluates Jesus. If, as Mark states, Jesus is fundamentally obedient to God, this holiness should be expressed by God’s judgment about Jesus.

1. In the baptismal theophany (1:10–11), God declared Jesus uniquely holy and pure. God, moreover, gave Jesus his own purity, the Holy Spirit. 2. In the transfiguration theophany (9:2–8), not only do the holiest figures of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, appear to Jesus and share his company, but God once more affirms Jesus’ holiness: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” (9:7). Far from separating Himself from what is unclean, God repeatedly draws near to Jesus. 3. Jesus figures as the Beloved Son in the parable of the vineyard, the Son whom the owner of the vineyard sent (12:6), thus signaling once more Jesus’ intimacy with the holy God. 4. Jesus is the person whom God will bring into God’s own presence: “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand’ ” (12:36). For Jesus is indeed the person whom God will vindicate and bring to himself. Jesus is no sinner, no unclean corpse, no impure figure; for God will make him holy and make him alive when he is “seated at the right hand of the Power” (14:62). 5. There God will make the holy angels his servants (8:38; 13:27). Through Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement, then, God makes clear his verdict of Jesus’ purity rating, viz., that Jesus was and is “the Holy One of God.”

Death is the ultimate sign of the power of sin and Satan. It means irrevocable uncleanness (Frymer-Kensky The Word of teh Lord Shall Go Forth 1983:400). But death does not affect Jesus. Jesus undeniably dies, not because he sinned or because Satan proved to have power over him, but because of his holiness, i.e. his obedience to God. When Mark says “The Son of Man must suffer and die …” (8:31), he is saying that Jesus is called in obedience, hence in holiness, to undergo death’s uncleanness. And Jesus is obedient, as the prayer in the Garden shows: “Not what I will, but what you will” (14:36). Knowing God’s plan through the Scriptures, Jesus obediently submits: “The Son of Man goes as it is written” (14:21) … “but let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (14:49). Jesus’ death is not polluting for it comes from obedience to God, not from the power of sin. By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicates him, testifying that he is indeed “Son of God” (see 15:39) and proving that he fully deserved his high purity rating. Jesus then enters the very circle of God’s presence and sits on God’s throne, a thing unthinkable for a corpse.

The crucified Jesus was not unclean (despite Deut 21:23; see Gal 3:13). Death did not pollute him because God rescued him from death and brought him into God’s own presence. Jesus, therefore, can speak of death to his followers as non-polluting. He can tell them to “take up the cross and follow me” (8:34) and to “lose one’s life for my sake and so save it” (8:35). Far from Jesus’ death being a pollution or his crucified body being impure, it is a source of purity. The Son of Man “gives his life as ransom for many” (10:45). His blood is “covenant blood” which binds God and the covenant people; it does not pollute them and separate them from God. His blood is atonement blood which is “poured out for many” (14:24); it takes away uncleanness. The final irony is that death, the ultimate pollution, serves as the very source of purity for Jesus’ followers.

The gospel claims, moreover, that with Jesus as the cornerstone, a new and holy temple will be built where members of the true covenant can come into contact with the holy God. Not like the old, material temple, made by human hands! Not like the old temple with its inadequate cultic sacrifices (11:16; 12:33)! The new temple will be made by God, “a temple not made by human hands” (14:58) (Juel Messiah and Temple 977:144–153). It will be a different kind of temple entirely, for it will be Jesus’ risen body. And so holiness and purity can only be had by being in contact with Jesus (“This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes,” 12:11). As the Jews measured holiness in terms of proximity to the temple, so Christians now measure it in terms of proximity to Jesus. For it is in Jesus that one finds genuine covenant and atonement sacrifices (14:24) which bind to God and makes pure. To be in contact with Jesus is to be in contact with the Holy God of Israel. Yet this new holy space is not fixed on a mountain in Jerusalem, but is a fluid space as yet without a map.

Part Three: The New Purity System of Jesus

The idea of purity is an important anthropological concept for understanding Mark’s gospel. It facilitates a sympathetic appreciation of the criticism of Jesus by the Pharisees and other purity-conscious Jews. According to the cultural and religious norms of the times, Jesus was crossing forbidden boundaries and coming into contact with unclean people. Although Jesus disregarded the maps of Judaism, Mark does not state that Jesus abrogated the idea of purity as the structuring value of his world. On the contrary, Mark portrays him as revising the maps according to a new principle. Let us review the ways in which Jesus reforms the system of purity according to new rules. This in turn will assist us in understanding the purpose and strategy of the new purity rules according to Mark.

A.    Jesus’ Reform of the Purity Rules

We recall that, according to Mark 7, Jesus offered a reform of the purity rules of his culture. While critizing existing maps of purity, Mark’s Jesus offered other maps and rules. From the gospel we can summarize the disagreements between the Pharisees and Jesus over the classifications, definitions and evaluations that make up the purity system of Israel.

Pharisees et al.

Jesus & His Followers

1. Purity rules are extended to 613 laws, the tradition of “fence” around the Law.

1. Purity rules are concentrated in the core law, the Ten Commandments.

2. Purity concerns focus on the washing of hands, cups, pots, vessels—external & surface areas.

2. Purity concerns are focussed on the heart—interior & core areas.

3. Purity rules prevent uncleanness from entering.

3. Purity rules guard against uncleanness which is within from coming out.

4. Purity resides in specific external actions relating to hands and mouths.

4. Purity resides in a person’s interior, in faith & right confession of Jesus.

5. Purity rules are particularistic, separating Israel from its unclean neighbor.

5. Purity rules are inclusive, allowing Gentiles and the unclean to enter God’s kingdom.

This chart shows how completely Jesus and the Pharisees differ, not over whether there should be purity rules and a purity system, but on what the rules are and what areas of life are affected.

Douglas offers further suggestions on how to assess the differences between Jesus and the mainstream system which structured Jewish life in the first century through the plotting out of two variables for locating and explaining diverse groups. In her jargon she calls these two variables group and grid (Natural Symbols 1973:77–92). Group refers to the degree of societal pressure exerted upon individuals or subgroups to conform to the purity system, its symbols and rules. This pressure to conform may be strong (as was the case with first-century Judaism) or weak (as in contemporary USA). Sadducees, Pharisees, even Jesus and his followers experienced strong pressure to accept and conform to the central values of Judaism as outlined in Gen 1–3 and replicated in the Temple.

Douglas’ second variable, grid, refers to the degree of assent that people give to the symbol system which is enjoined on them, its classifications, definitions and evaluations. People may experience a fit between their personal experience and the stated aims and values of the system, which is called high grid. Or they may feel a discrepancy between the aims of the system and their experience, and to give diminished assent to it, which is low grid. The Sadducees, as guardians and exponents of the mainstream Jewish purity system, experienced a strong fit between the system’s aims and their life: they are described as high grid. But other Jews seem not to have accepted so fully the articulation of Israel’s religion as handed down by the priestly Sadducees. The Pharisees, for example, contested many aspects of the system, especially the claim that purity is the concern of priests only; and so, they attempted to extend the system to non-priests as well, with themselves as its definers and spokesmen. In this conflict with the system, they represent a lower grid than the Sadducees. Mark, however, portrays Jesus as a reforming figure who saw the system in need of considerable repairs, as he contests many of the basic classifications, definitions and evaluations of the system. Since Jesus’ degree of dissent from the main aspects of the system is greater than that of the Pharisees, his grid is correspondingly lower.



degree of assent to the purity system

















Jesus & his followers





Jesus, then, stands within the system of Israel’s faith (strong group). He confesses faith in Israel’s one, true God (12:29–33) and accepts the Scriptures as God’s authoritative word. Yet he does not seem to agree with the way the Pharisees, for example, would describe God or with their reading of the Scriptures (low grid).

The differences between mainstream Jewish system and Jesus can be briefly sketched. (1) The core value of the Jewish system is God’s “holiness”: “Be ye holy as I am holy” (Lev 11:44). But Jesus points to God’s “mercy” as the core value: “The Lord, the Lord, merciful and kind …” (Exod 34:6–7). (2) For the mainstream, God’s holiness is symbolized in God’s act of creation, especially as this is perceived as a fundamental act of ordering. For Jesus, however, God’s mercy is symbolized in God’s free election and God’s unpredictable gift of covenant grace ((see Deut 7:7–8; Exod 33:19). (3) The structural implications of God’s holiness-as-ordering lead the Sadducees et al. to a strong purity system with a particularistic tendency, whereas God’s mercy-as-election leads to a weaker purity system with an inclusive tendency. (4) A defensive strategy flows from holiness-as-order, whereas a strategy of mission, hospitality and inclusiveness represent the appropriate strategy where mercy-as-election constitutes the core value. (5) Finally, the Scriptural legitimation for holiness-as-order is found primarily in the Pentateuch, whereas election and covenant (as in the case of Abraham) is found both in pre-Mosaic traditions as well as in prophetic criticisms of Israel’s cult.




core value

God’s holiness (Lev 11:44)

God’s mercy (Exod 33:19)

symbolized in


election and grace

structural implications

strong purity system, with particularistic tendency

weaker purity system, with inclusive tendency



mission, hospitality

legitimation in Scripture


pre-Mosaic as well as prophetic criticisms

Jesus would seem to be trying to reform the Judaism of his time, suggesting as his controlling value God’s free and unpredictable act of covenant election. He still worships Israel’s God and accepts God’s word in the Scriptures (strong group), but he strongly contests the classifications, de finitions and evaluations of the mainstream articulation of the system (low grid). In this Jesus claims to have the true notion of God and the correct expression of that in the symbols of mercy, inclusiveness and election. To the Sadducees and Pharisees, Jesus appears as a maverick who is stepping outside the system entirely. But Jesus and his followers would claim to be reformers of the system. Sadducees and Pharisees would conclude that Jesus had no purity system, because he did not completely share theirs; but Jesus and followers would emphatically claim to have a genuine system which is the reformed, authentic system truly given in the Scriptures. But the two conflicting views of Judaism will clash in terms of the degree of particularity or inclusiveness. According to Douglas’ model, these are differences of grid, not group.

B.    Jesus: Defender of the Idea of Purity

Mark’s Jesus criticizes Pharisaic purity rules—laws based on Israel’s Scriptures. But according to Mark, Jesus bases his own reform on those same Scriptures, but viewed from a different perspective. Nevertheless, Jesus’ reformed rules are grounded on God’s word (strong group). For example,

1.    In justifying the breaking of the Sabbath for food-consumption purposes, Jesus appealed to the example of David in 1 Sam 21:7.

2.    In criticizing Pharisaic divorce laws, Jesus appealed to God’s original law in Gen 1–2, not to what “Moses wrote because of the hardness of your hearts” (10:5; see Deut 24:1–4).

3.    In reforming the temple system, Jesus appealed to traditional prophetic criticisms of Israel’s system in Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11.

4.    In commenting on the Pharisees’ tradition of korban, he insisted on the primacy of one of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and mother” (7:10), as well as Isaiah’s critical remarks (Isa 29:13 LXX).

According to Mark, moreover, Jesus knows the Law. In 12:29–31, he proclaims as the core of the Law both the Shema (Deut 6:4–5) and love of neighbor (Lev 19:18). He enjoins the Ten Commandments on the man who asked what was necessary to “inherit eternal life” (10:19). Jesus, then, is neither ignorant of the Law nor disrespectful of it. He bases his reform of the purity rules precisely on the Scriptures, but on aspects of it different from those celebrated by the Pharisees.

Besides defending the essential Law of God as the substance of his reform of purity, Jesus is portrayed as setting down purity rules to cover many of the same items which were the object of Pharisaic purity rules: entrance requirements, sin, and judgment. As regards entrance requirements, Jesus demands “repentance” to enter the kingdom of God which is at hand (1:14–15). Acceptance of Jesus as God’s agent becomes a prime requirement (8:38). Obedience to the basic covenant law is the way to inherit eternal life (10:19). In short, acceptance of Jesus and his version of what God requires is the basic boundary between insiders and outsiders (see Mk 4:10–12).

As regards sin, Jesus deals vigorously with sinners who may not otherwise come into God’s holy presence. “Sin” is redefined by Jesus. First, inasmuch as obedience to God’s law is the way to eternal life, conversely sin is disobedience to these laws, which alone renders a person “unclean”. The list of vices which “defile a man” (7:21–22) are formally based on the Ten Commandments:

The Ten Commandments

Vices in Mk 7:21–22

1. Do not kill

1. murder,

2. Do not commit adultery

2. fornication, adultery, licentiousness,

3. Do not steal

3. theft,

4. Do not bear false witness

4. envy, slander,

5. Do not defraud

5. covetousness,

6. Honor your father & mother

6. see Mk 7:9–13

These sins are “impurity” in Jesus’ system, for they are what “defile a man.” A premier sin is identified by Jesus: those who “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit” never have forgiveness (3:29). That sin is to call Jesus “unclean”: “for they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’ ” (3:30). Jesus, of course, has God’s “authority on earth to forgive sins” (2:10), an authority which directly challenges the temple system for dealing with sins (12:33). He is God’s designated “physician” to sinners (2:17).

As regards judgment, Mark portrays Jesus as the judge who erects boundaries around God’s kingdom and firmly defends them. Jesus as judge guards the gates and admits or excludes; he will strictly determine who gets in and who stays out. When he comes with his angels, he will render judgment: 1) against unbelievers who reject him (“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words … of him will the Son of Man be ashamed,” 8:38) and b) on behalf of believers (“He will gather his elect from the four winds,” 13:27). Jesus, then, can be said to accept the same concerns and issues as observant Jews of his day (strong group). It is not true, as his opponents claim, that he has no purity concerns and no system.

C.    Jesus and Covenant Boundaries: New Rules

It hardly went unnoticed that Jesus constantly crossed lines and boundaries. But as we noted above, Mark portrays him as an authorized “limit breaker.” To what purpose, however, did Jesus violate the maps of persons and places? I suggest that according to Mark, a Christian missionary strategy is validated by Jesus’ activity; for Mark is intent on showing that Jesus’ mission was an inclusive one to preach to all peoples, Gentiles included, and to offer full membership in God’s kingdom to all peoples, Gentiles included.

For example, in following the geographical references in the gospel, one gets a clear view of the audiences to whom Jesus preached, which is a view of the world, and not just of the Holy Land. A new map is being drawn.

1.    The crowds which followed Jesus came from “Galilee, also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon” (3:7–8).

2.    Jesus himself crossed over into Gentile territory (4:35).

3.    The dispossessed man preached Jesus “in the Decapolis” (5:20).

4.    Jesus “went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (7:24), where he granted covenant blessings to a Syrophoenician woman (7:25–30).

5.    He “returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon, to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis” (7:31).

6.    Peter’s great confession was made in the non-Jewish town with the Hellenistic name of Caesarea Philippi (8:27).

7.    Jesus said that “the gospel must be preached to all the nations” (13:10).

Ethnic boundaries are being crossed; or to put it more clearly, the boundaries of Jesus’ covenant people are more porous than those of the parent synagogue covenant. But this is an intentional strategy appropriate to the missionary effort of Jesus’ followers and consonant with Jesus’ image of God as a merciful God of gracious election. According to Mark, it does not mean a rejection of purity concerns, but a conscious relaxation of purity rules during a missionary phase of the community’s formation.

Besides Gentiles, the marginal and unclean people in the villages of Israel are also ministered to by Jesus. This replicates the lowering of purity boundaries and speaks again to the inclusive membership of Mark’s community. This inclusiveness is evident in the parable of the sower in 4:3–9, where the prodigal sower throws seed in the most improbable places: on the path, on the rocks, and among thornbrakes. No pre-judgment is made on potential membership in God’s covenant community on the basis of ethnic status or purity rating. Thus one important function of the change of purity rules in Mark is the issue of inclusive membership in God’s covenant. Jesus’ crossing of the purity boundaries of his day is a functional statement in Mark of the inclusiveness of the membership of the Markan community.

D.    Purity Lines and Self-Definition

As we saw in the case of Jewish customs such as circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath observance, temporal and spatial maps pertain to self-identity and to self-definition. For example, Josephus describes the particularistic purpose of a custom like circumcision: “To the intent that his posterity should be kept from mixing with others, God charged Abraham to have them circumcised and to perform the rite on the eighth day after birth” (Ant. I,192; see Philo, Moses I,278). If Jesus is said, for instance, to abolish Jewish dietary rules, this serves as a way of defining the Christian covenant group as a group which does not keep those rules, viz. a less particularistic and more inclusive group. So by redrawing lines or by erasing them, Mark and his group are engaged in the process of self definition.

Each of Jesus’ critiques of the Pharisees or Jewish purity customs enables the new Christian group to know precisely where it stands in relation to the parent synagogue. They do X and we don’t do X; they don’t do Y but we do Y. In the controversy stories of Mark’s Gospel, we find the Christian non-keeping of certain purity customs functioning as boundary lines defining the Christian group and distinguishing it from the synagogue. And so a new map is drawn. For example:



Dietary Laws

no dietary laws

Wash Hands Before Meals

no washing of hands before meals

Strict Sabbath observance

no strict Sabbath observance

Temple & Sacrifices

no sacrifice in the old temple.

If these Jewish customs served a particularistic function to separate Israel from the nations, then the systematic abrogation of them should also be seen vis-a-vis Mark’s sense of an inclusive or open covenant community. The church is not only not the synagogue; its reform of the particularistic purity rules suggests a more open group than the synagogue.

Although in one sense Jesus abrogates purity rules which “set apart” God’s people in a particularistic way, Mark still portrays Jesus as setting his group apart from all others. Jesus establishes clear lines and boundaries for his group, which unmistakably separate insiders from outsiders. Faith in Jesus is the chief distinguishing criterion. Confession of Jesus, acceptance of him as God’s Holy One, acclamation of him as Son of David, Christ, or any other symbol of God’s agency means that one is an insider. Objection to his teaching (2:7), to his practice (3:2), or to his customs (7:1–4) denotes an outsider. For example, the “unbelief” of the people in Jesus’ own country means that these people are clearly outsiders (6:3–6). This is repeated in 3:31–35 where the biological family of Jesus is “standing outside” and calling him to come out to them (3:32). They are in contrast to the group which is inside listening to Jesus’ teaching. They are Jesus’ real family: “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (3:34). The criteria for status as an insider differ from those of the synagogue where blood, physical or genealogical concerns determine membership in God’s “chosen people.” In keeping with Jesus’ new purity rules in Mark 7, the criterion for membership is a matter of the interior, the heart—faith in Jesus.

Similarly, it would be expected that Jesus would give special private instruction to his disciples when they are “inside,” for they are “insiders” (4:10–13; 34; 7:17–23; 9:28–29; 10:10–12). It is possible and necessary, then, to tell insiders from outsiders. Jesus’ followers positively need these boundaries and lines in their endeavor to define themselves over against the parent synagogue.


We have seen that understanding the idea of purity is important for understanding Mark’s presentation of Jesus and the Christian community. To repeat a third time, it would be simply erroneous to say that Mark repudiates the system of purity, just because he presents Jesus disregarding or contesting certain purity rules. Rather Mark portrays Jesus according to a reformed idea of purity, in which lines are being redrawn and boundaries loosened. Douglas’ model of group/grid allows us to locate Jesus’ basic allegiance to Israel’s God and his Scriptures (strong group), while accounting for Jesus’ reforming suggestions about God’s mercy and how this structures a more inclusive group with a weaker purity system less particularistic than that of mainstream first-century Judaism (weak grid). Mark, a gentile writing for a gentile church, portrays Jesus as the legitimate, reforming prophet who disputes the classifications, definitions and evaluations of a system in dire need of correction. Jesus’ reforms in turn legitimate Mark and his community as authentic worshipers of the one, true God, but according to a system, structure, and strategy different from the mainstream of Judaism.

The functions of the idea of purity in Mark may be summarized.

1.    The basic presentation of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is done in terms of purity. It matters whether Jesus has the Holy Spirit or an unclean spirity, whether his closest company is holy (John the Baptizer, God, angels, Moses and Elijah), and whether his death is polluting. Jesus’ purity rating is always of great importance in the gospel, for his legitimation rests on a high rating.

2.    Jesus is constantly presented as the physician who brings cleanness, forgiveness of sins, and wholeness to God’s covenant people. Even though Jesus may be in contact with unclean people, he gives wholeness and purity to them; he never loses it as a result of that contact. In fact, he is the one who gives them the Holy Spirit (1:8).

3.    When Jesus crosses boundaries and when he allows unclean people to contact him, this “polluting” activity functions in Mark vis-a-vis the inclusive membership of Mark’s church. Marginal and unclean Israelites as well as Gentiles are welcome in God’s new covenant group. Inclusive membership, then, will initially mean that certain purity lines be crossed and that boundaries be made porous. And so, the new posture of Jesus to social boundaries is coherent with the view of the covenant community proposed by Mark.

4.    The crossing of boundaries and lines also serves to define the Christian group vis-a-vis the synagogue. Self-identity is found in the redrawing of these lines.

5.    Although boundaries may be porous in terms of mission and membership, they become quite firm and clear in terms of Mark’s perception of who is in/out of the group. Believers are in and unbelievers are out.

6.    While Jesus breaks certain boundaries, he erects and guards other lines and boundaries. For Jesus can forgive sins or retain them. He can admit or dismiss people from God’s presence.

Works Consulted

Achtemeier, Paul

1970    “Toward the Isolation of Pre-Markan Miracle Catenae.” JBL 89:265–91.

Alexander, Philip S.

1982    “Notes on the ‘Imago Mundi’ of the Book of Jubilees.” JJS 33:197–213.

Alter, R.

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Baumgarten, Joseph M.

1982    “Exclusions from the Temple: Proselytes and Agrippa I.” JJS 33:215–25.

Best, Ernest

1965    The Temptation and the Passion: the Markan Soteriology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Buchanan, George W.

1963    “The Role of Purity in the Structure of the Essene Sect.” RQ 4:397–406.

Carlston, Charles

1968    “Things that Defile (Mark VII.14) and the Law in Matthew and Mark.” NTS 15:75–96.

Cohn, Robert L.

1980    The Shape of Sacred Space. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.

Daube, David

1938    “Exousia in Mk 1.22 & 27″, JTS 39:45–59.

Donahue, John

1982    “A Neglected Factor in the Theology of Mark.” JBL 101:563–94.

Douglas, Mary

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Douglas, Mary

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Douglas, Mary

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1982    In the Active Voice. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Elliott, John H.

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Fennelly, James M.

1938    “The Jerusalem Community and Kashrut Shatnes.” Pp. 273–88 in SBL 1983 Seminar Papers. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva

1983    “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel.” Pp. 399–414 in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth. Carol L. Meyers and M. O’Connor, eds. Published for the American Schools of Oriental Research by Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, IN.

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Helgeland, John

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Isenberg, Sheldon and Dennis Owen

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Lambrecht, Jan

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Malina, Bruce

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1981    The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta, GA: John Knox.

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Body Language in 1 Corinthians: The Use of Anthropological Models for Understanding Paul and His Opponents

Jerome H. Neyrey

Weston School of Theology


Mary Douglas offers a model for correlating attitudes to the physical body and corresponding structures in the social body. The physical body is a symbol of the social body: tight bodily control replicates strong pressure to conform to group norms, whereas weak bodily control (even emphasis on “spirit”) denotes weak social systems and weak pressure for control. According to 1 Corinthians Paul demands strong control of (1) bodily orifices (the genitals, chs 5–7; the mouth for eating, chs 8, 10–11; the mouth for speaking, chs 12–14); (2) bodily surfaces (ch 11); (3) bodily structure (head and members, chs 11–12) and (4) bodily discipline (ch 9). The pneumatics appear to Paul to urge weak bodily control in accord with their ideology of individualism and freedom. Douglas’ ideas on bodily control offer a cross-cultural model for appreciating Paul’s strong sense of custom, structure and order in his churches, a model applicable not only to 1 Corinthians, but to all of his letters.


Of all of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians is thoroughly and intensely concerned with BODY. 1. There is great concern for bodily orfices: (a) chs. 5–7 deal with the genitals, a major bodily orifice; (b) chs 8–10 and 11 are concerned with another orifice, the mouth for eating; and (c) chs 12–14 are likewise concerned with the mouth, under the rubric of tongues and prophecy. 2. Bodily surface is discussed in 11:2–16, whether this refers to veils on the head or to hair styles. 3. The body as the prime image of the church is developed in ch. 12. 4. Head and feet are used to describe the relational position of God to Jesus (15:25–28); head also describes Jesus’ relation to members of his body (11:3). 5. Discipline of an athlete’s body serves as a model for Paul’s advice in 9:24–27. 6. Whether in the resurrection there will be a body and what that body will be like are questions that are treated in ch 15, 7. Unified body members may “greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:20). BODY, then, is a constant point of reference in 1 Corinthians.

Yet in 1 Corinthians, there are two levels of issues. Particular bodily issues are discussed: whom one may not marry (ch 5), with whom one may not have sexual intercourse (ch 6), whether to marry and stay married (ch 7), what foods one may eat (chs 8–10), how the surface of one’s head must be covered and which “heads” one should obey (ch 11). Besides these particular bodily issues, there is concern in 1 Corinthians for more general issues relative to the social body. The designation of the group as a “body” implies many things about membership, roles, structure, order, and authority in that same body. It is important, then, that we attend to the specific issues affecting the physical body as well as the more social view of the group implied by its designation as a body.

The understanding of BODY in 1 Corinthians is complicated for us because Paul’s position on specific body issues is not universally shared by the Christians at Corinth. The following brief synopsis indicates the range of diversity on specific, practical issues concerning BODY in that group.


Non-Pauline Position

Pauline Position

incest (ch 5)

boast (5:2)

horror (5:6–7)

fornication (ch 6)

freedom (6:12–13)

pollution (6:15–19)

idol meat (chs 8, 10)

freedom (10:23)

restraint (10:24, 28–29)

head surface (ch 11)

no restraint

restraint (11:16)

tongues & prophecy (ch 14)

no restraint

restraint (14:26–32)

This synopsis indicates that the Pauline position inclines to bodily control and to a sense of the group as influencing the individual, whereas the non-Pauline position favors little bodily control and a strong sense of individualism.

Whether in fact at Corinth Paul’s opponents on one issue are the same as his opponents on another issue is a problem that cannot be addressed at this point. Paul’s own reaction, however, to the series of issues and problems noted above is known. And, as I hope to show, it is coherent and consistent. The same claim can be made in regard to the opponents’ position—at least from Paul’s perception of it. Two attitudes to body, then, are found in 1 Corinthians, attitudes which are antithetical in terms of the degree of control appropriate to the body.

I.    Body Language and Cultural Anthropology

I propose to study BODY issues and imagery in 1 Corinthians from the perspective of the noted British anthropologist, Mary Douglas. In a series of studies she has put forth a hypothesis about BODY as a diagram and symbol of the social system.

Building on the celebrated essay of Marcel Mauss (Economy and Society 1973:70–88), Douglas states that the body is a medium of expression: “The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived” (Economy and Society 1973:93). For bodily technique is learned social behavior; the social system determines how the body is used as a medium of expression of perceptions, norms and values. Strong pressure from the social group will be replicated in corresponding strong control of the physical body.

According to Douglas, moreover, the body is a microcosm of the social body, a symbol of society:

The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures (Purity and Danger 1966:115).

Not only is ordering and structuring of the physical body a replication of social structuring, control of the physical body is an expression of social control:

Bodily control is an expression of social control—abandonment of bodily control in ritual responds to the requirements of a social experience which is being expressed (Economy and Society 1973:99).

For example, concern with bodily orifices replicates social concerns:

Interest in its (the body’s) apertures depends on the preoccupation with social exits and entrances, escape routes and invasion. If there is no concern to preserve social boundaries, I would not expect to find concern with bodily boundaries (Economy and Society 1973:98–99; see Purity and Danger 1966:124).

As we noted earlier, just this issue of control or non-control of the body distinguishes Paul and his opponents at Corinth.

It is the purpose of this essay to gather the remarks of Douglas on BODY and to see how they form a model for interpreting the body language of 1 Corinthians. We can observe in great detail what Paul says about bodily control and his consistent attention to bodily issues. As Douglas suggests, Paul’s observations on bodily control replicate his opinions on social control; and so we are dealing not only with his remarks to specific issues, but with his cultural view of the way Christian groups should be structured. The previous essay on “Purity” is apropos here, for by examining Paul’s bodily rules, we gain access to his idea of purity, the ordering principle which is replicated in specific bodily rules. Let us now investigate how Douglas’ remarks may constitute a cross-cultural model which can be used to investigate Paul.

In her book, Natural Symbols, Douglas developed a model for assessing the degree of control or non-control over a social body. Social systems exert varying pressure on a given social unit to conform to societal norms. The degree of this pressure Douglas identifies in her jargon as “group”; it may be STRONG or WEAK. a) STRONG “group” indicates a high degree of pressure to conform to group norms as well as a strong degree of pressure for order and control. Where there is strong group pressure, the body is imaged as a controlled or bounded system; entrances and exits are guarded; order and discipline are valued; personality is dyadic and group values predominate. b) WEAK “group” indicates a low degree of pressure to conform to societal norms. Where this pressure is weak, the body is not perceived as a controlled system; entrances and exits to the body are porous; norms and discipline are not valued; personality is very individualistic. It is here that Douglas would expect to see emphasis on free spirit rather than on regulated body, fostering of trance and ecstasy which betoken weak bodily control.

Douglas’ model includes a second variable, “grid,” which refers to the degree of assent given to the norms, definitions, and classifications of a cultural system. High “grid” indicates a high degree of fit or match between the individual’s experience and societal patterns of perception and evaluation. The individual will perceive the world as coherent, consistent and intelligible in its broadest reaches. Low “grid” indicates a low degree of fit or match between an individual’s experiences and societal patterns of perception and evaluation. When “grid” is low, the world is largely incomprehensible.

These abstract variables can be more concretely expressed. Social groups have cosmologies, that is, views of the world and one’s place in it. Using broad and inclusive terms from the field of cultural anthropology, Douglas investigates six aspects of cosmology: 1) purity, 2) ritual, 3) personal identity, 4) body, 5) sin, 6) spirit possession. The following chart summarizes comparative features of societies distinguished according to group and grid variables.



Purity. pragmatic attitude toward purity; pollution not automatic

Purity. strong concern for purity; purity rules define and maintain social structure

Ritual. used for private as well as personal ends when present; ego remains superior to the ritual process; condensed symbols do not delimit society

Ritual. a society of fixed rituals expressing the internal classification system of the group; ritual symbols perdure in all context of life

Personal Identity. individualism; pragmatic and adaptive

Personal Identity. a matter of internalizing clearly articulated social roles; dyadic personality; individual subservient to society

Body. viewed instrumentally, as means to some end; self-controlled, treated pragmatically

Body. tightly controlled; a symbol of life

Sin. basically caused by ignorance or failure, hence viewed as stupidity or embarrassment with loss of face, with individual responsible

Sin. violation of formal rules; focus on behavior rather than internal states of being; individual responsible for sin

Spirit Possession. not dangerous

Spirit Possession. dangerous; either not allowed or tightly controlled & limited to a group of experts





Purity. anti-purity posture

Purity. strong concern for purity, but the inside of the physical & social body is under attack; pollution present, and purification rituals ineffective

Ritual. anti-ritual; effervescent and spontaneous

Ritual. a society of fixed rituals, which are focused on group boundaries; great concern to expel pollutants from the social body

Personal Identity. no antagonism between society & self, but the old society from which individual emerges is seen as oppressive; self &/or social control low; highly individualistic

Personal Identity. located in group membership, not in the internalization of roles, which are confused; dyadic personality

Body. irrevelant; life is spiritual; purity concerns absent, but body may be rejected or freely used

Body. social and physical bodies are tightly controlled, but invaders have broken through bodily boundaries; not a symbol of life

Sin. a matter of personal ethics and interiority

Sin. a matter of pollution; evil is lodged within the individual & society; sin is like a disease deriving from the social structure; internal state of being more important than adherence to formal rules, which are still important

Spirit Possession. approved, even welcomed; no fear of loss of self-control

Spirit Possession. dangerous: a matter of demonic possession; evil


1.    Purity In a strong group situation, there is strong concern for the purity of the social and physical body. As we saw in the previous essay, purity refers to the ordering, classification, and structuring of the social world; it means an avoidance of all that violates that sense of order, In terms of the physical body, it means identification of and distancing of oneself from “dirt” (spittle, feces, menses) which socially means concern over persons and events that do not fit the group’s ideals and sense of order, viz., things that violate its rules.

2.    Ritual There are fixed rituals for determining where the lines and boundaries of the ordered system lie and who is properly within the body and who is not, that is, concern over boundaries of the body. And there are ritual symbols which express the internal classification system of the group. Every body has a place and knows where it is; hence boundaries which define location are carefully drawn and entrances and exits into carefully defined space are guarded. Authority, status, and roles are clear and clearly expressed.

3.    Personal Identity Identity here is non-individualistic and group-oriented. One’s role and place in the group is assigned and learned.

4.    Body Social and physical bodies are rigidly controlled. Along with a strong sense of purity goes a protection of the body from threatening pollutions.

5.    Sin This is defined not simply as violation of rules but as pollution which invades the body and threatens to pollute its pure insides. Moral norms are well defined and are socio-centric, that is, learned from the group and measured in those terms.


1.    Purity There is a reactionary or weak concern for purity. This implies considerable tolerance for diversity and plurality.

2.    Ritual Again there is a rejection of strong entrance rites into the group or of clear boundaries around it. There tends to be a weak internal classification system, implying fluid social status. Effervescence and spontaneity are valued here.

3.    Personal Identity Society is seen as oppressive; assigned roles are rejected. Personal and social control are devalued, and so individualism is pronounced.

4.    Body The body is not perceived as a bounded system and there is no sense of protecting its orifices and its purity. The body is not a symbol of life, for life is spiritual.

5.    Sin This is a matter of personal ethical decisions and interiority, rather than a violation of socio-centric norms.

From these contrasting cosmologies, we can describe contrasting attitudes to the body. Where there is strong “group” pressure, the body is perceived as a bounded system, strongly controlled. It is considered as a “holy” or “pure” body and so it guards its orifices (eyes, ears, genitals) and maintains firm and clear boundaries. Its concern for order and clarity make it fear unconsciousness, fainting, or any loss of control; it will tend to take a negative view of ecstasy or spirit possession. It is a regulated and harmonious body whose individual parts are disciplined and coordinated for group action, as in the case of an athlete.

Where “group” pressure is weak, the body is not perceived as a bounded system nor is it strongly controlled. There is no fear of pollutants around the body and so there is no control over its orifices and boundaries, viz., what is sees, hears, to whom it joined in marriage or sexual union. Porosity to its environment is accompanied by a celebration of freedom of movement and spontaneity of individual members of the body. Trances and spirit possession are looked upon favorably.

In trying to show the replication of attitudes between physical and social bodies, Douglas suggests a series of contrasting terms: 1) formal/informal, 2) smooth/shaggy, 3) structured/unstructured, and 4) ritualism/effervescence. A controlled physical body may be described as formal; in social terms this means “social distance, well-defined, public and insulated roles” (1973:100). An uncontrolled physical body is informal, which means “role confusion, familiarity, intimacy” (1973:99–100.).

Smooth/shaggy express much the same as formal/informal. Smooth is appropriate where group ideals are clear, where roles are defined, and where ladders of authority or pyramidal structures exist. Shaggy denotes individualism, criticism of the system, less commitment to role or structure (1973:102). Structured/unstructured are terms borrowed from Talcott Parsons. In highly structured situations there is a minimum of possible responses other than the ones required by the norms of the situation. The less highly situations are structured, the more informality is valued, the greater the tendency to abandon reason and follow crazes, and the more license for bodily expressions of abandonment (1973:102–103).

Douglas’ primary interest in Natural Symbols is the decline of ritualism in society. And so she elaborates her theory of social pressure (or “group”) to see how ritualism fits into a cultural system (see “ritual” in the cosmologies above). Douglas proposes a test case regarding bodily control or abandonment in the study of spirit possession among three African tribes. She notes a spectrum of opinion on the issue: how spirit possession, trance, etc. may be strongly controlled (ritualism) and how they may be uncontrolled (effervescence, 1973:133–35). According to Douglas, the conditions for ritualism occur: 1) when there is an articulated and controlled social structure, 2) when interpersonal relationships are subordinated to public patterns of roles, and 3) when society is differentiated and exalted over the self. The conditions for effervescence occur: 1) when there is a lack of articulation in social structure and weak control, 2) when little distinction is recognized between public and interpersonal relations, and 3) when society is not differentiated from self (1973:103–104). Ritualism is symbolized in differentiation of roles, sacramental attitudes to rites, distinctions between inside and outside, and a high value placed on control of consciousness. Effervescence is expressed in diffused symbols, preference for spontaneity, absence of interest in magic or sacraments, and the absence of control over consciousness.

In summary, Douglas suggests a model for studying BODY.

1.    According to her “group” variable, a physical body may be either controlled (strong “group”) or uncontrolled (weak “group”) by social expectations and norms.

2.    Strong “group” may be described as smooth, formal, structured, and ritualized; weak “group” is shaggy, informal, unstructured, and tending to effervescence.

3.    The control of the physical body mirrors social control, which shows itself according to the cosmologies noted above.

4.    And so, bodily control expresses the concerns of the social body; the former is a microcosm of the latter. We can use the patterns of bodily control as a way to understand the overarching values and ideology of the society which promotes its social rules.

We can take this model and now apply it to the perceptions about BODY in 1 Corinthians. The hypothesis of this study may be clearly stated. 1. There are two different views of physical and social body at Corinth, Paul’s and his opponents’. 2. Paul’s viewpoint of the physical body is that of a highly controlled body: it is a bounded system, to be strongly controlled; it is a pure or holy body and so must guard its orifices; its concern for order and clarity make it fear unconsciousness or loss of control; it takes a negative view of spirit possession; it is a regulated and harmonious body, whose parts are clearly differentiated and coordinated for the good of the whole body; no individual member is allowed to disrupt the body’s disciplined functioning. This view of the physical body replicates a view of the social body marked by strong “group” pressure, formality, smoothness, structured features, and ritualism. 3. The opponents view the body as an uncontrolled organism; there is no fear of pollutants around the body and so there is no need for control of the bodily orifices. Accordingly the bodily boundaries are porous. Porosity is accompanied by celebration of freedom of movement and spontaneity. Trances and spirit possession are looked upon favorably. This view of the physical body replicates the perception of the social body as marked by weak “group” pressure, informality, unstructured features; here effervescence flourishes. 4. The contrasting attitudes to control of the body in 1 Corinthians are an important source of information about the conflict in Corinth and offer a clearer window into the issues which divided Paul and his adversaries there. 5. The attitude toward BODY, moreover, affords a source of consistence and coherence in evaluating the perspective of Paul and his adversaries.

Strong “group” pressure:

Weak “group” pressure:

Strong control of social body

Weak control of social body

Strong control of physical body

Weak control of physical body

II.    Bodily Orifices

A:    The Sexual Orifice

As we noted earlier, Paul’s concern with BODY focuses on three areas: 1) bodily orifices, b) bodily surfaces, and c) bodily imagery. In 1 Cor 5–7 Paul is concerned with sexual problems and issues, i.e. with the sexual orifice of the body and with the proper/improper crossing of that orifice. The first issue is the problem of the incestuous marriage in 5:1–8. Two attitudes are immediately evident: a) some are “puffed up” approvingly over the marriage (5:2a) but b) Paul recoils in horror at it (5:1, 2b). Bodily control is scorned by some and expected by others.

The key to Paul’s viewpoint is contained in the metaphorical remarks about leaven in 5:6–8. The incestuous marriage in the Christian group is like leaven, which is perceived as a pollutant threatening the body. “Leaven” means “the old leaven of malice and iniquity” (5:8); if it enters the pure batch of flour it will “leaven the whole lump” (5:6), i.e. pollute it. On the contrary, Christian believers are called to be a new lump, holy, pure, and unleavened in virtue of Christ’s passover sacrifice (5:7–8). No polluting impurity should be found in the midst of the Corin thian “saints.” Paul, then, judges from the standpoint of purity and pollution.

The incestuous marriage is a pollution of such magnitude that it is “not found among the pagans” (5:1). This pollution threatens the social body, as the “leaven” metaphor in 5:6–8 makes clear. It also pollutes the Christian partner; for, when a man joins himself to a woman, “the two become one flesh” (6:16). If one partner is impure and polluting, the other partner will be corrupted. This corrupting sexual union, therefore, represents an illicit crossing of the sexual orifice; the holy social body of the church and the individual Christian body is threatened.

The strategy in this crisis is clear. The threatened social body must expel the pollutant by excommunicating him (5:2b–5, 7, 13). As Douglas predicted, concern to regulate the sexual orifice replicates concern for the integrity of the social body’s boundaries and entrances. Implied in this strategy is the expectation that excommunication from the group may pressure the offending Christian partner to break up the incestuous marriage. The “one flesh” (the marriage) must be destroyed; the individual must reestablish the holiness of his own body and guard its sexual orifice. The depolluted Christian may then re-enter the holy group (5:5; see 2 Cor 2:5–7). The control of individual bodily orifices replicates the group’s concern with its social boundaries, as Douglas has suggested (1973:98–99).

In the treatment of fornication in 6:12–20 we discover that two views of body are again operative. According to some, the body is uncontrolled: “All things are lawful to me” (6:12). For them, the body is neutral—it is not a bounded structure whose inside is pure and must be guarded. This is brought out in the analogy made between eating food and fornicating. “Food is made for the stomach” (6:13); that is, any food may cross the orifice of the mouth and enter the stomach; eating is a neutral action which has nothing to do with purity. Likewise with fornication, the sexual orifice is neutrally conceived; anything may pass across it; any sexual union is permitted. Like eating, carnal intercourse is perceived as having nothing to do with purity or boundary violations.

For Paul, however, two different principles are operative. First, the physical body of the believer is not neutral but holy. “The body is not meant for immorality but for the Lord and the Lord for the body” (6:13); the body, in fact, is a “member of Christ” (6:15). Like the Christian social body (3:18), the physical body is expected to be a container of holiness: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (6:19). Second, the body is a bounded and controlled system. All is not “lawful” for it, for some things may “enslave” it (6:12), and so bodily control is an appropriate strategy. Paul is concerned with the body’s purity and so there are corresponding rules controlling the orifices of the body and regulating what crosses them.

As we saw in 5:1–8, when a holy person is joined to an unclean partner, the resulting “flesh” is corrupted. In the case of sexual commerce with a prostitute, the resulting “flesh” is polluted (6:16). The example of prostitution serves to explain the evil of fornication: it is a sexual union which is seen as polluting the Christian partner. Alternately when a person is joined to the Lord who is holy, the resulting union is holy (6:17). Fornication, like prostitution, is perceived as a pollution, for the resulting body cannot be holy; its pollution makes impossible a holy union with Christ.

The concern in 6:12–20 is with the pure interior of the body. Every other sin is committed “outside” the body, that is on the outside of the boundary which maintains the purity of the inside. Such sins, while evil, are not called pollutions or abominations. But sexual sins are perceived as attacking one’s own body (6:18); that is, they cross the boundary or orifice and threaten the holy inside. This implies that illicit sexual commerce is a pollution that occurs within the “one flesh” which results from the joining of the two. In the case of fornication, prostitution, and incest, the sexual orifice and the organism’s boundary should be vigorously guarded and not illicitly crossed. The result will be a pollution of the body’s interior.

Rules for the body and its orifice, moreover, are appropriate because for Paul individual bodies are not neutral or free but controlled. “Your body is not your own; you were bought with a price” (6:19). Freedom, even freedom for the body, may be the shibboleth of some at Corinth, but that is not Paul’s viewpoint. He prescribes control of the body and its orifice in 5:1–8 and 6:12–20, a view in keeping with his perception of the body as a holy system which needs to be guarded.

The issue of marriage taken up in ch 7 has further bearing on the sexual orifice of the body. The ideal is stated repeatedly: absolute noncrossing of the sexual orifice is highly desired either in virginity or celibacy.

1.    “It is well not to touch a woman” (7:1).

2.    “It is well to remain single as I do” (7:8).

3.    “He who refrains from marriage will do better” (7:38).

Implicit in this posture of guarding the sexual orifice is a view of sex as somehow inherently polluting.

The rationale for this is hinted at in 7:32–35. The unmarried person is perceived as joined to the Lord, totally concerned “how to please the Lord” (7:32) and “how to be holy in body and spirit” (7:34). Married persons are “divided” in concern for the Lord and their spouses (7:34b). Dividedness is inherently destructive of a body, a point which will be made evident in the discussion of ch 12 which follows. And it is implied that loyalty is a limited good; as much as is given to a spouse, that much cannot be given to the Lord. Married persons may be holy in spirit, according to Paul, but being holy in body as well is problematic for them (7:34–35).

Paul’s permission for sexual intercourse is but a pragmatic concession. He will allow a lesser evil to avoid a greater pollution: “Because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife” (7:2). Or, if a man’s “passions are too strong, and it has to be, let him marry” (7:36). The ideal would be to remain celibate and virginal so as to be totally concerned with the Lord and to be holy in body and spirit.

The ideal of sexual abstinence cannot be maintained. Hence sexual union is permitted. But it is wrapped in controls and subject to numerous regulations. First, there will not be promiscuous crossing of boundaries or orifices: “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (7:2). Second, sexual relations are themselves subject to control: “The wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does” (7:4). A third rule is given in 7:5–6. It is not permitted to refuse sexual intercourse “except by agreement for a season,” in this case to do something truly holy, such as “devoting yourself to prayer.” The reason for this limited concession is fear of pollution, i.e. “lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control” (7:6). Purity concerns lead to guarding of bodily orifices and to regulating the proper crossing of that orifice; that is what “self-control” means in this context. Protection of boundaries is appropriate to a body perceived in this way.

Paul’s teaching on divorce (7:10–16) repeats much of his concern for orifices and his perception of the body as a bounded, holy system. (1) On the one hand, he categorically prohibits divorce (7:10–11, 27–28). When two bodies join and become one flesh, that “one flesh” is a whole or holy body. And like all bodies it must resist unwarranted entrances into it as well as the threat of being rent asunder. This rule, although ascribed to the Lord (7:10), is coherent with Paul’s viewpoint of a regulated body. (2) Even in the case of exogamous marriages (where two pagans married and one subsequently became a Christian), Paul does not act according to the prescriptions in Ezra 9:1–2, 11–15 and try to break those marriages (7:12–13). Divorce is perceived as a worse pollution than the mixed marriage. But pollution is the appropriate concept here, for the issue is one of purity and pollution. Why not break this marriage? Paul says that the pagan (unholy) partner may be “made holy” by the holy partner and so the “unclean children” become “holy” (7:14). This is a reversal of the leaven image of 5:6–8, but it clearly indicates that pollution language governs Paul’s discussion of marriage and divorce. (3) Yet as great a pollution as divorce is for Paul, he permits it (7:15–16). Why? The unbelieving partner desires to separate, that is, the partner who is unholy. The holy inside of this “one flesh is already polluted in some way; the union is already split. Now Paul’s concern is to preserve the holiness of the believing member: “Let them separate” (7:15). A higher law of purity is operative; a lesser impurity (divorce) is tolerated in fear of a greater pollution (apostasy, loss of Christian membership). As in the case of the offending eye, hand or foot in Mt 5:28–30, let the boundaries be redrawn to exclude the offending pollutant. In this case the divorcing person is seen as amputated from the holy divorced person; and the body’s integrity is maintained.

B:    The Mouth (for eating)

A second orifice, the mouth, becomes the focus of the discussion in 1 Cor 8–11. The problem concerns eating and what may or may not cross the orifice of the mouth. To appreciate Paul’s perspective, let us first examine 10:14–22, where his viewpoint regarding body and mouth is clearest.

It is important to note the principle laid down in 10:14–22. Rules are given concerning eating: some food is prescribed (vv. 16–18) and some food is proscribed (vv. 19–22). The orifice of the mouth is regulated! But what principle determines the food which may or may not pass the oral orifice?

The permissible food is the “holy” food of the Eucharistic meal. The cup of blessing which Christians drink is “participation in the blood of Christ” and the bread which they break is “participation in the body of Christ” (v. 16). The Eucharistic food is permitted to cross the boundary of the mouth and to enter the body; in doing so it reinforces the body’s purity. The image here is like the “leaven” in 5:6–8. If what goes in is good, it does not contaminate but strengthens purity; but if what is ingested is corrupting like leaven, it pollutes the holy inside of the body and so it is proscribed. The Eucharist is inherently holy; it is prescribed food. But there is another kind of food which is proscribed, as Paul notes: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (10:21). Foods sacrificed to idols certainly are not “holy”; and in view of Paul’s view of the body as a bounded system threatened by pollution, such foods are a pollutant which will corrupt the individual because they will mean being “partner with demons” (v. 20). Paul once more perceives the issue on the basis of purity and pollution.

The logic here is similar to that in chs 5–7. By eating and drinking at a cultic table, a person has koinonia with the cultic lord (10:16, 20) and becomes “one body” with the lord (10:17). This is analogous to the “one body” which is formed in sexual commerce: the two become “one flesh” (6:16). Even with virginity, the person who joins him/herself to the Lord forms a new unity with the Lord (6:17). This “one body” may be holy or unclean depending on whether the partner to whom one joins oneself is clean or unclean (see 6:15–16). Incest and fornication involve a koinonia which corrupts; Christian marriage results in a koinonia which sanctifies. So with foods. Sharing the body and blood of Christ means koinonia with the holy Lord; and this “one body” is holy. But sharing the cup and table with demons means koinonia with an unholy demon; this union is polluting. In Israel’s Scriptures covenant fidelity has frequently been expressed in terms of marriage (Ezek 16; Hos 1–2). This metaphor manifests the same analogy Douglas suggested between the social and physical body:

Collective social body



physical body

koinonia with cultic Lord

koinonia with



Just as in marriage there cannot be two husbands, so there cannot be two Lords of the covenant, Jesus and demons. Hence one cannot eat at both tables. The pure and the polluted are mutually exclusive realms.

Issues relating to food and eating continue to occupy Paul’s attention in 11:17–34, the discussion of behavior at the Eucharist. The Eucharist for Paul is the holiest of times, things, and activities. Time: Paul operates with a map of time, indicating that the time when the group gathers to celebrate its holiest rite is the most important time for them. Violation of this map of time is as much a pollution for him as was Jesus’ violation of Sabbath for the Pharisees (see previous essay; Mk 2:23–3:6). Object: the Eucharist, because it is the body and blood of the Lord (see 10:16–17) is the holiest of objects and must be treated with utmost purity. Activity: the celebration of the Eucharist express the group’s identity, cohesion and boundaries. It is the premier ceremony of ordering and classifying this group of people, and so its proper celebration requires absolute holiness among its participants.

But its holiness is threatened on two fronts. First, the problem is focused on the orifice of the mouth and on foods, secular and holy, which are being consumed. Second, the problem of the physical body represents a problem in the social body. When the church assembles, it is presumably to express the unity of the body, the union among the participants and between them and their holy Lord. But it is reported in 11:18–20 that the body which gathers is not holy. “Divisions” are occurring in the body (11:18); any “division” of a body is a violent threat to its wholeness and hence to its holiness. In Douglas’ model of purity and pollution, purity refers not only to what conforms to the classifications and boundaries whereby a social group is structured, but also to “wholeness.” Wholeness may refer to an object or person fully conforming to the group’s definition of it (certain sea creatures do no conform to the complete definition of a sea creature, and so lack “wholeness”). On a bodily level, a eunuch lacks something necessary for being a whole male and so is unclean because of this lack of bodily wholeness (Lev 21:17–21).

The bodily problem, insofar as it is expressed, deals with the divisiveness of intemperate eating and drinking at the Eucharist: “In eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk” (11:21; see Gal 5:20–21). This de-regulation of the oral orifice is compounded by some becoming drunk, which is itself an evil (see 6:10), for excessive wine pollutes and is typical of pagan meals and cultic practices.

The crisis over the oral orifice of the physical body reflects a crisis over the boundaries of the social body. Discriminatory eating and drinking manifests distinctions being made between social levels of those present, thus establishing artificial boundaries within the group to exclude the poor, the hungry or the weak: “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:22). The breakdown in table manners (i.e. the de-regulation of the oral orifice) is perceived by Paul as threatening the boundaries14 of the social body. Lack of control of the orifice of the body manifests a serious disregard of the social body’s integrity and purity.

There is probably great irony in the remark in v. 19 that “there must be factions among you in order that those among you who are ‘genuine’ may be recognized.” This means that those causing the faction or division are perceived as doing so for the purpose of distinguishing themselves as “genuine” or elite members of the group. Some, such as those who are puffed up at the incestuous marriage (5:2) and who boast of freedom to eat anything (10:23), would see no harm in their unregulated eating and drinking at the Eucharist; on the contrary, it may distinguish them as the strong in the group as opposed to the weak, the foolish, and those easily offended. Eating and drinking in their minds has nothing to do with pollution. Not so with Paul, who is concerned with the “division” in the holy body of the Lord caused by intemperate eating and drinking: “Do you despise the church of God or humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:22). What threatens the unity and health of a body is a pollution; their eating so threatens; it is a pollution.

This behavior pollutes the Eucharist itself as well as the holy group. “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (11:20). This is so, not because they are using the wrong formula, but because they are desanctifying the rite. Receiving it when drunk or in a disorderly fashion means profaning the holy Eucharist: “Who eats the bread and drinks the cup unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord: (11:27). One who does so brings “judgment”, not holiness, upon himself (11:29); one is thereby liable to condemnation (11:32–34)—that is, being publicly rendered “unclean.” The holy Eucharist which is received in an unholy person is rendered ineffective; it loses its holiness. It is profaned.

Rules, then, must be laid down to guard more closely the orifice of the mouth and so to protect the holiness of the Eucharist itself and the social body whose cohesion and holiness is threatened. Rules proscribe certain food and drink and regulate the consumption of others. No drunkenness is allowed (11:21); consumption of food at the feast must be done all at the same time (“when you come together to eat, wait for one another,” (11:33). Lest intemperate eating cause a problem, “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” (11:34). By regulating the orifice of the mouth, these rules aim at restoring the health of the social body by healing divisions (11:18) and by eliminating humiliations (11:22). Other rules enjoin self-examination on the offending parties to see if their interior is holy enough to receive the Eucharist worthily (11:27–28) and to discern whether they are the cause of any harm to others. In other words, the proper governing of the orifice of the mouth at the Eucharist is the prime way to guard the holiness both of the Eucharist and of the group receiving it.

When we approach the issue of eating idol meat in chs 8–10, several of Paul’s principles should be clear:

1.    The physical body is constantly threatened by pollutants which attempt to cross its oral orifice and which, when ingested, work to divide the body.

2.    On the basis of the ideas of purity and pollution, there are appropriate rules for regulating the orifice of the mouth: certain foods are proscribed, others prescribed. The manner of eating may also be regulated.

3.    The rules guarding the oral orifice likewise guard the boundaries of the social body.

The issue of idol meat in chs 8–10 is more complicated than that of the Eucharist, for the Eucharistic food can be argued to be intrinsically holy. Rules for its proper reception are appropriate. But the early church de-sacralized food in its abolition of Jewish dietary laws (Mark 7:19; Acts 15; 1 Cor 10:25–26). Yet no appeal is made in 1 Cor to this ecclesial decision as the basis for the eating of idol meat. As we shall see, such an appeal to authority is totally out of character for those who urge that idol meat be eaten. On the contrary, the arguments seem to reflect a view of the body which is radically different from Paul’s, a view which was described earlier under the cosmology of an uncontrolled body.

Among the chief arguments urged in favor of eating idol meat, the dominant one seems to be freedom from laws and taboos. “Am I not free” is the slogan urged twice for the validity of eating (10:23; see 6:12 and 8:9). Paul admits the validity of this “freedom” to eat (10:29) but indicates that it is not the overriding value here. By arguing in ch 9 that he himself relinqushed his rights and freedoms, Paul indicates that freedom is not an absolute value for him as it is for others in Corinth. A second argument for eating comes from the individualistic claim to have “knowledge” (8:1, 10). The claim to special insight serves to redraw boundaries within the group, dividing the elite who have this “knowledge” from those seen not to have it (8:7, 11). The knowledge claimed has to do with a judgment on the neutrality of foods, that is, how they are no longer evaluated according to the old Jewish laws. Inasmuch as “food is made for the stomach and the stomach for food” (6:13), food is neutral. To eat it may even be a way of demonstrating that one is beyond the old legal and purity concerns. The nature of Paul’s cautious remarks in chs 8–10 indicates his sensitivity to the strong individualistic claims made by those who eat and who disregard any consequences such eating might have on the weaker members (8:7–13). No holiness, no group concerns, no regulation of freedom color their thinking. Paul understands these arguments, but they do not represent his viewpoint at all.

The bottom line in Paul’s remarks are rules which regulate the orifice of the mouth so as to protect the holiness of the body. Under certain circumstances eating is proscribed: “You may not eat” (mē esthiete, 10:28). Specific circumstances when one may or may not eat are also clearly enunciated. One may eat when invited out: “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner … eat whatever is set before you” (10:27). But one may not eat if eating would genuinely scandalize a fellow Christian. The circumstances are clear; one may not eat a) at table in an idol’s temple (8:10) and b) when the weak-conscienced member explicitly says “This has been offered in sacrifice” (10:28).

Not only the regulations but the arguments which support them are similar to what we have seen in regard to Paul’s regulation of the oral orifice in 10:14–22 and 11:17–34. Paul has strong purity concerns. First, even the weak-conscienced member of the church is holy in virtue of Christ’s purifying death (8:11). The paramount concern is chs 8–10 is to prevent this weak but holy member from being “defiled”: “Some eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (molyntai, 8:7). Second, Paul repeatedly concerns himself with the interior space of the persons involved, their conscience and especially the threatened “weak conscience” (8:7, 10, 12; 10:28–29). Just as Paul worried about the polluting leaven entering a pure batch of flour, so he is on guard lest the holy interior of a member be defiled by sight of another eating idol meat or by actual ingestion of it. “Conscience,” then, speaks to the holy interior which is threatened with defilement. And so, Paul concludes, “if food is a cause of my brother’s being scandalized, I will never eat meat, lest I scandalize my brother” (8:13). “To Scandalize” means to cause the loss of interior holiness in the affected person, i.e. to pollute (see Mt 18:6, 8–9).

Implied in Paul’s argument is the same concern found in 7:12–14, 10:14–22 and 11:17–34, viz., to protect the social body from division. Paul perceives a lack of concern for the integrity of the social body in the position of those who would eat (“the strong”), which disregards the effects of their eating on “the weak.” Such behavior becomes a stumbling block to some (8:9); “sinning against your brother … you sin against Christ” (8:12). This “sin against Christ” is none other than an attack on the body of Christ, the church (Murphy-O’Connor, 1978:563–564). Paul’s concern with the guarding of a bodily orifice once more communicates his concern for the boundaries of the social group.

In Paul’s argument in chs 8–10, we find other elements of the cosmology of a controlled body, which arguments are radically different from those urged by “the strong.” (1) Freedom: Although freedom to eat is nominally endorsed, Paul proceeds to wrap that freedom in constraints and to circumscribe it with regulations. Freedom is not an absolute or overriding value for Paul. He claimed for himself a series of individual rights (9:3–15), which he sees as circumscribed by the needs of the social body. He affirms that he is indeed free: “Am I not free? Have I not seen the Lord?” (9:1). But that freedom is controlled by what is good for the social body: “For, though free, I have made myself a slave to all” (9:19) for the benefit of the body of Christ (9:20–23). (2) Personal Identity: A certain individualism describes those who have knowledge and would eat. They are concerned basically with themselves. Paul, however, is concerned with what is good for the group: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:23), and again, “I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (10:33). The gnosis of the strong only “puffs them up” (8:1); it does not yield any advantage for the group. (3) Ethics: The ethical norm of those who would eat is that of individualistic freedom: “All things are lawful to me” (10:23; 6:12). For Paul, the clue is found in what “builds up” the group. “Love,” or concern for the group’s unity, “builds up” (8:1); it is better than knowledge which puffs up. Although all things are lawful, “not all things build up” (10:23). And so what strengthens group boundaries is of higher value than the freedoms of individuals.

Paul’s regulation of the eating of idol meat and the reasoning which underpins it stand in sharp contrast to the behavior and attitudes of those who would eat in freedom. We can conveniently sketch the differences in the cosmologies of Paul and his opponents which will summarize the discussion thus far:




no concern for purity


strong purity concerns

porous boundaries


concern over what crosses bodily boundaries

not a bounded system, no protection needed, no concern with orifices and boundaries


strongly controlled, guarded against pollution, concern with orifices and boundaries

individualism, freedom unrestrained


strong group orientation, freedom governed by “love”

personal ethical decision



C:    The Mouth (for speaking)

In 1 Cor 12–14, the orifice of the mouth becomes the focus of Paul’s attention. As we shall see, Paul establishes rules for this orifice, but it is important to note the reasons which accompany his regulation of it. The question here is not like that of idol meat, i.e. what crosses the mouth and enters the body, but what comes out of the mouth and enters the ears of the assembled body. The regulation will be of the mouth of the speakers.

First we note that there are operative in ch 14 two different views of the body and of tongues. For many at Corinth, the gift of tongues is highly valued as a symbol of effervescent spirit possession: “One who speaks in a tongue speaks not with men but to God … he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (14:2). In anthropological terms, Mary Douglas would consider speaking in tongues as a form of trance. Apropos of this she remarked: “Where trance is not regarded as at all dangerous, but as a benign source of power and guidance for the community at large, I would expect to find a very loosely structured community, group boundaries unimportant, social categories undefined” (1973:109). Spirit possession indicates a lower degree of social structure and control, as well as strong individualism. In this context freedom must prevail, for one should never “quench the spirit” (1 Thess 5:19). Nor would one ever consider governing the orifice of the mouth or structuring this gift in the life of a community: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). The cosmology of those who prize speaking in tongues is highly individualistic and freedom-oriented; no rules are appropriate to this uncontrolled body.

Paul’s cosmology, however, is that of a controlled or structured body. In this context other remarks of Douglas about spirit possession are useful: “We tend to find trance-like states feared as dangerous where the social dimension is highly structured, but welcome and even deliberately induced where this is not the case” (1973:104). Let us examine Paul’s viewpoint on speaking in tongues.

The dominant argument urged by Paul for the regulation of speaking in tongues is group cohesion (recall Personal Identity in the cosmology of a controlled body). A value judgment is made on the relative importance of tongues and prophecy. Those who speak in tongues “edify themselves,” but those who prophesy “edify the church” (14:4). “He who speaks in prophecy is greater than he who speaks in tongues” because prophecy edifies (14:5). “Edification” is a persistent value for Paul; “let all things be done for edification” (14:26). Eating idol meat disedifies, abstinence edifies (8:1, 10); seeking one’s own good may dis-edify another, so “let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor” (10:23–24). “Edification” indicates that one’s personal identity and behavior is group, not individualistically, oriented. “Edification,” moreover, is a term which denotes purity concerns. Dis-edification causes scandal and pollutes the conscience (8:7); edification strengthens the wholeness and holiness of the individual conscience and the group. Paul is expressing a purity concern, then, when he tells the congregation to “be babes in evil” (14:20). This means, be innocent of dis-edifying behavior which is consequent to unregulated speaking in tongues. Edification, then, serves group identify, purity concerns, and regulation of personal freedoms—the cosmology of a controlled body.

Besides articulating prophecy’s value in edifying the group, Paul devalues speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is fundamentally unintelligible (14:9) and unfruitful (14:14): “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (14:14). For, “five words spoken with my mind” are worth more than “ten thousand words in tongues” (14:19). By this language Paul clearly values consciousness and clarity; he favors group-edifying and group-regulated behavior. Speaking in one’s “mind” betokens these values. But praying in one’s “spirit” is unconscious and unintelligible; it is highly individualistic and uncontrolled behavior. Mary Douglas (1969:69–72) evaluated just these terms, “mind” and “spirit,” in view of their relationship to the social body. She argued that “philosophical controversies about the relation of spirit to matter or mind to the body be interpreted as exchanges of condensed statements about the relation of society to the individual” (1969:69). The “body” or the “flesh” in her argument represents society; “mind” and “spirit” represent the individual. She then articulates her theory of the relation of society to individual, body to mind and spirit:

To insist on the superiority of spiritual over material elements is to insist on the liberties of the individual and to imply a political program for freeing him from social constraints. In the contrary view, to declare that spirit works through matter, that spiritual values are made effective through material acts, that body and mind are separate but intimately united, all this emphasis on the necessary mingling of spirit and matter implies that the individual is by nature subordinate to society and finds his freedom within its forms (1969: 69).

Paul’s preference for praying “in mind and spirit” expresses his view of personal identity as dyadic and group-oriented; it implies regulation of freedoms. Those who glory only “in the spirit” may be said to be individualistic people for whom freedom is an absolute, unrestrained value.

As Paul sees the issue, the consequences of speaking in tongues are important for its evaluation. As we noted above, prophecy edifies the group; the effect of tongues is just the opposite. Tongues, like intemperate eating and drinking at the Eucharist, play havoc with the body’s unity. When someone speaks in unintelligible tongues, the result is an artificial but deleterious re-drawing of boundaries within the group: “I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me” (14:11). Since speaking in tongues betokens spirit possession and is seen as a sign of elite status, its unregulated practice disrupts the unity of the body, causing factions and divisions (see 12:21). The wholeness of the body is thereby jeopardized, as it was in 11:18–22. And if outsiders and unbelievers observe this unregulated practice, “they will say that you are mad” (14:23). They will be confirmed as outsiders and lose the chance to be made holy by membership in the holy body of Jesus. While not positively polluting, speaking in tongues can function to re-draw boundaries within and around the group, preempting God’s prerogative to say who is in or out of it. Thus the wholeness of the body is harmed and its holiness is threatened.

Given Paul’s cosmology of the church as a bounded system where identity is group-determined and where purity concerns dictate the maintenance of boundaries, Paul’s regulation of the oral orifice is consonant with his view of the church as a controlled body. He establishes clear rules for the governance of the mouth. As regards tongues, only two or three at most may speak in tongues at a given meeting. Even this rule is phrased so as to avoid all loss of control: “If any speak in a tongue, let there by only two or three at most, and each in turn” (14:27). It is even possible to close the orifice completely: “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God” (14:28).

Those who prophesy are likewise regulated. “Let two or three prophets speak” (14:29). And, “if a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent” (14:30). As with the rules for tongues, Paul permits no loss of control. The principle is clear that even if a bounded body is filled with a free and uncontrollable spirit, order and control are not to be sacrificed: “The spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets” (14:32). Control is never to be sacrificed in regard to the body.

III.    Bodily Surface, Head, Hands and Feet

In 11:2–16, there is a discussion of bodily surfaces. In this I am following the study of Murphy-O’Connor (1980:482) that the issue was over hairdo’s: men wearing unmasculine hairdo’s and women wearing unfeminine ones.

As with the case of incest and fornication, two contrasting views of body are operative in the discussion. The primary fact seems to be that some men were wearing their hair long and coifed in an unmasculine fashion and some women were wearing their hair loose, unbraided, and unbound, which was contrary to societal customs. Long and coifed hair for men denoted effeminacy and possibly homosexuality; uncoifed hair for women suggested freedom and perhaps sexual license. At least, the novel hairdo’s tended to blur sexual identity and to confuse sexual and societal roles assigned to men and women. This, of course, would not be objectionable to those who saw that “in Christ there is no male or female” (Gal 3:28) and to those who proclaimed that in Christ “we are all free”—from Torah, law, and custom (see 1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). The blurring of sexual roles and identity because of unmasculine/unfeminine hairdo’s is but the external symbol of the view of body as a free organism, without clear boundaries, and without concern for purity and rituals to maintain that purity. No sense of dishonor (i.e. pollution) threatening the individual or the social body attends the blurring of sexual roles and distinctions by novel hairdo’s.

Inasmuch as we are well aware of Paul’s view of body, let us see what he makes of the issue of novel hairdo’s. The woman’s hair should be plaited, braided, and wrapped around her head. That is what is lacking according to Paul in 11:5, 6, 15. Plaited hair which is wrapped around the head in orderly fashion symbolizes control over the surface of the body, the part of the woman which is in direct contact with the social world. Plaited and braided hair denotes a clear social role and clear sexual differentiation; the braiding of hair exemplifies the social concern for matronly chastity and for modesty. This type of hairdo is appropriate where the body is perceived as a controlled structure, where boundaries are guarded, where roles are clear, and where purity is prized. For those with this view, then, uncoifed and unbound hair suggests just the opposite view of body: freedom, loss of control, and blurring of clear sexual roles. Loose hair suggests loose morals and therefore takes on the appearance of a pollutant.

Where the physical body is perceived as a system requiring control, a man’s hair is expected to be short and natural. Thus he will be perceived in masculine terms and not be confused with women (whose hair is customarily long, see 11:6). Nor should the man dress his hair, curl it, or make it resemble a woman’s hairdo (Murphy-O’Connor, 1980:485). Such hair styling suggests confusion of sexual identity and/or loss of bodily control, and so is seen as a pollutant, i.e. a danger to the social order. Hair rules replicate social rules dealing with sexual differentiation and roles; such rules are appropriate to a bounded body.

Paul’s perception of the issue of unacceptable hairdo’s is couched in terms of purity and pollution. The offending man “dishonors” his head (11:4, 14), as does the offending woman (11:5). This irregularity is a “disgrace” (11:6). Since such hairdo’s blur the lines which define masculine and feminine roles and status, they are a pollution. They are doubly offensive at a worship service where “praying and prophesying” occur (11:4–5, 13) and where holy time demands holy behavior and holy attire. Paul consciously refers to this in 11:10 when he expresses his reason for proper hairdo’s—”… because of the angels.” Apropos of this verse, Joseph Fitzmyer (NTS 1957:55–56) explained that worship was perceived as taking place before the angels and mediated by them (Ps 137:1 LXX and Rev 8:3). As a participation in the heavenly liturgy at which the holy angels presided, human worship demanded that “unclean” or polluted members be excluded “for holy angels are present,” as the following text from Qumran indicates:

Nor shall anyone who is afflicted by any form of human uncleanness whatsoever be admitted into the assembly of God; nor shall anyone who becomes afflicted in this way be allowed to retain his place in the midst of the congregation … for holy angels are (present) in their (congre)gation … let him not enter, for he is contaminated (1QSa ii.3–11).

Just as eating and drinking at a Eucharist were matters of purity and pollution (11:17–34), so also were hairdo’s.

Paul clearly intends to regulate the surface of the body, the hair. He prescribes that women should wear their hair long, braided and coifed; men should wear their hair short and undressed. Hair styles which confuse gender roles and status are proscribed.

The discussion centers around hairdo’s, i.e. control of the body surface. Involved here is the issue of role differentiation in the church and society. As Mary Douglas indicated, where formality, smoothness and ritual are accentuated values in one’s cosmology, one will tend to find well defined roles, social control and a strong commitment to a structured system. Where informality, shagginess, and effervescence are dominant values, there tends to be less role differentiation, little control, and loose adherence to a structured system. Where personal identity is group-oriented, roles will be clearly defined; where individualistic, a weak internal classification system is evident.

Let us now use Paul’s remarks about hairdo’s to see what is said about role differentiation in the discussion in 11:2–16. The slogan in Galatians, “in Christ there is no male or female” (3:28), is in considerable tension with Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians; for in the latter letter he argues for differentiation of the sexes—Gal 3:28 notwithstanding. Alluding to the original order of creation, Paul points out how even then the sexes were differentiated. “Man was not made from woman but woman was made from man” (11:8, 12a); “man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man” (11:7–8). In the new creation in Christ, there are some changes stated: “In the Lord woman is not ‘different’ (chōris) from man nor is man ‘different’ (chōris) from woman” (11:11) (Murphy-O’Connor, 1980:497). But sexual differentiation is by no means totally abolished in the new creation. For Paul states at the beginning of the passage a principle which undergirds the hierarchical differentiation of man and woman:

The head of every man is Christ

the head of the woman is her husband,

and the head of Christ is God (11:3).

This points to some differentiation according to gender and role. We know that in the abstract men and women are equally chosen by God and are equal recipients of grace and gift—both “pray and prophesy” in the church (11:4, 5). This equality, however, is not entirely replicated in the social body. It is stated that “a woman ought to have authority (exousia) over her head” (11:10) because “woman was made from man for man” (11:8, 9). For Paul the sexes are still differentiated; and so totally different hairdo’s are appropriate to the respective sexes (11:13–15).

Further evidence of Paul’s sense of role and status differentiation in 1 Corinthians is appropriate here. The reader is reminded that as regards social roles, Paul called upon the Corinthians: “Let every one of you lead the life which the Lord has assigned him and in which God has called him” (7:17). And “in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (7:24). Slaves maintain their same social role and rank of slaves; Jews are still Jews; Gentiles remain Gentiles. Again in ch 12, Paul reminds the church that there is no radical blurring of roles in the body of Christ: “If all were a single organ where would the body be?” (12:17). If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? (12:17b). Differentiation of bodily organs is expected and desired. This configuration, moreover, is God’s doing: “But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them as he chose” (12:18). Finally, roles within the social body are very clearly articulated by Paul; there is no blurring: “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues” (12:28a). The maintenance of roles and sexual differentiation in regard to hairdo’s in 11:2–16 is replicated in 1 Cor in Paul’s maintenance of roles and status differentiation in the body of Christ.

Returning to 11:3, the term “head” (kephalē) is not devoid of importance. Although Murphy-O’Connor insists that it not be translated as authority or supremacy (1980:491–93), perhaps that point needs to be revised in the light of the present discussion. Despite the freedom slogans found in the letter (“Am I not free?” 9:1; “All things are lawful for me,” 6:12, 10:23), Paul by no means sees authority abolished in the new creation (see 16:15–16). From the point of view of body symbolism, “head” denotes high position, rank, and authority (Schwartz, 1981: 51–52). So when Paul says that “the head of a woman is her husband” (11:3), “head” denotes higher authority and rank attributed to husbands. This is repeated in 11:10 where woman, who is from man and for man, ought to have “authority” (exousia) over her head. She is situated “lower” than man: she is “from” man and “for” him; he has exousia “over” her. Every man, too, is subject to authority for “the head of every man is Christ” (11:3).

This sense of rank and authority occurs in the description of the body of Christ in ch 12. “Feet” are said to complain that they are not “hands”: “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body (12:15); “eyes” lord it over “hands” and “heads” over “feet”: “I have no need of you” (12:21). Yet in spite of the problems reflected in the discourse in 12:14–21, Paul does not favor abolishing distinctions of rank and status in the body: “If all were a single organ, where would the body be?” (12:19). Douglas’ model predicts that where there are strong purity concerns, there will be a correspondingly strong classification system. In the case of the Body of Christ, the superior bodily parts are perceived as higher ranked and as possessing greater dignity and authority in the anatomical hierarchy. The anatomy of the body in ch 12 is a clear cipher for the taxonomy of the social body.

Body imagery affords still another clue to rank and authority. Even Christ is said to have a “head” over him: “The head of Christ is God” (11:3). In 1 Cor 15:20–28 Christ is spoken of as the new Adam—the new head/source. On one level the argument simply states that as all die in Adam, so all rise in Christ (15:21–22). But the passage says much more: like Adam, Christ has dominion and rule over all creation (15:24; Gen 1:26–28). His “headship” is visualized by his having “all things in subjec tion under his feet” (15:25, 27). Christ is “head” as source and as ruler. Yet even Christ-as-head is perceived to be in a structural relationship with God:

When all things are subjected to him (Christ)

then the Son himself will also be subjected

to him who put all things under him,

that God may be everything to everyone (15:29).

On one level this serves as an answer to the Corinthians who espoused an overly realized eschatology: the last enemy, death, has not yet been subjected. But terms such as “head … feet” and “subjected” are body language suggesting role differentiation, structural relationships, even authority and hierarchy. I suggest that this language in 1 Cor 15:20–28 serves other purposes: 1) to reassert concepts of control where pneumatic freedom threatens communal cohesion, 2) to support authority where it is weak, and 3) to affirm structure where it is blurred. If Christ, truly risen and genuinely free, is perceived as “subjected to him who put all things under him,” then the free and spirit-filled Corinthians can see a model for their own structural relationship to Paul’s authority and that of other leaders of the group (see 16:16). “The head of Christ is God” (11:3) implies that even Christ has a structured relationship to God; he himself is not absolutely free of authority and control. So, when men and women are said to have “heads” over them, they are no worse off than Christ.

In summary, we began with a discussion of hairdo’s in 11:2–16. The simple fact emerged that Paul sees control of the body surface as appropriate and so enjoins it. But regulation of body surfaces correlates with Paul’s regulation of body orifices. Yet the regulation of hair styles symbolizes also sexual and role differentiation in the social body. The fact that control in 11:2–16 is exercised over the “heads” of men and women pointed to the place of authority and rank in a structured body cosmology, a point amply verified in chs 11, 12, 15. The upshot of this investigation was to define further Paul’s controlled body cosmology by seeing the correlation between regulation of body surfaces and social classification systems. Control of the “head” and regulation of specific hairdo’s for men and for women replicate role differentiation and authority structure which is appropriate to that type of social body.

IV.    The Body of Christ

Besides concern for orifices of the body and its surface, Paul speaks at great length about the “body of Christ” which is the church. The social body of the church is a holy body, the body of Christ (12:12; 6:15). Its holiness consists, moreover, in being filled with a “holy” Spirit (12:4–11, 13; see 3:16 and 6:19). But the holiness of the body is likewise perceived in terms of its wholeness, viz. unity. One of the functions of the holy Spirit in 12:4–11 is to unify the cornucopia of gifts given to the body’s diverse members. It is through “the same Spirit” that wisdom is given to one, knowledge to another, and prophecy to still another (12:8–10). Not only is diversity of gifts unified in “the same Spirit,” but diversity of races and roles is unified in “the one Spirit”: “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13). Unity is touched upon in the remarks which indicate that the “same” Spirit, Lord and God are the dispensers of different gifts (12:4–7). All of the gifts, moreover, have a unifying purpose; they are “for the common good” (12:7), that is, for the “building up” of the body (see 1 Cor 14:3–5, 12, 26). The body, then, is holy in virtue of its “holy” Spirit, and its holiness is perceived in terms of its wholeness. As wholeness is a mark of the purity of the physical body, so unity manifests the holiness of the social body.

The greatest threat to a holy body is pollution; the most dangerous threat to a whole body is division. Paul repeatedly expresses concern with “divisions” in the church at Corinth (1:10; 11:18; 12:25). These divisions at one time derive from members preferring different “heads” over them: “I belong to Paul … I belong to Apollos … I belong to Cephas … I belong to Christ” (1:12; 3:4). Divisions, moreover, are made between strong and weak (1:18–29), wise (knowing) and foolish (8:1–3), free and unfree (8:10–13), sated and hungry (11:18–22). Jealousy and strife are rampant (1:11; 3:3). Some even “puff themselves up” against others (4:6, 18–19; 5:2; 8:1). Some look only to their own good and not to the good of their neighbor (10:24, 29). The premier unifying event is the Eucharistic meeting: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). But even this unifying event is “divided” by factions (11:18–19). The body at Corinth, then, is threatened with its most dangerous pollutant, division and disunity.

In the description of the body of Christ in 12:14–26 the threatening pollutants are already within the body. Two different sets of anatomical parts speak in 12:15–16 and 21. The first set speaks from a sense of inferiority, expressing the feeling that they are not welcome in the body. The foot, because it is not the hand, says “I do not belong to the body” (12:15) and the ear, because it is not the eye, says “I do not belong to the body” (12:16). The second set speaks from a sense of superiority, expressing the view that they are the only worthy members of the body. The eye says to the hand, “I have no need of you,” and the head says the same to the feet (12:21). Both of these postures are polluting because they would corrupt the body for the same reason; they attack its basic wholeness, and so its holiness. Inferiority attitudes make that person an outsider to the rest of the group (recall 14:11) and superiority attitudes, which foster individualism and elitism, humiliate others (recall 11:22). If left unchecked, the social body will be tragically divided by these attitudes; and a divided body is corrupt.

The view of the church as a body expresses other important aspects such as differentiation, roles and ranking. There is no doubt that the organs and parts of the body are in fact differentiated. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” (12:17). As it is, there are head, hands, and feet as well as eyes, ears, and nose. This differentiation, moreover, is part of the way things should be; it is ordained by God in creation: “But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (12:18). God, then, has drawn the official map of the physical body.

The differentiated parts of the body are also ranked. The head is greater than the feet; the eye is more important than the ear; the hand is above the foot. Paul even admits that in the body there are honorable and less honorable parts, presentable and inferior parts, stronger and weaker members (12:22–24). The ranking of the differentiated parts is related to the roles ascribed to the members of the church: “first there are apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then … then … then …” (12:28b). This, too, is God’s doing for “God has appointed” them (12:28b). God has also drawn the map of the social body. Even the charismatic gifts can be differentiated and ranked: prophecy over tongues, and charity over all (12:31; 13:13).

The body of Christ, then, is a structured and differentiated body. It is, moreover, a holy body whose wholeness is threatened with polluting division. In ch 5 the remedy for such a threatening pollutant was to expel it; but that is not appropriate here for it would cause the very thing Paul wants to prevent, viz., a divided body. The remedy proposed by Paul has to do with a renewed sense of personal identity which is characteristic of a controlled body. As we noted in regard to chs 8–10, individualism in regard to eating idol meat denoted a sense of identity contrary to Paul’s group-oriented viewpoint. On the other hand, “building up the body” and “not seeking one’s good but the good of others” (10:24) are actions commensurate with a sense of identity which is group oriented.

So with the body of Christ in ch 12. The members who most clearly tend to individualism are urged to be more group oriented, to seek the good of others. The honorable parts of the body are to invest with greater honor those parts they consider less honorable; the presentable, the unpresentable parts; the superior, the inferior parts (12:23–24). In short, they should not seek their own good but the good of others, since God has “adjusted the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part.”

This advice is repeated in the discourse on agapē in 13:4–7. For the elite, “love” should mean building up (8:1); it means seeking the good of others. Love, therefore, is “patient and kind … not boastful, arrogant or rude.” The inferior parts, too, are told to think of the good of others and not to be “jealous … resentful … but to bear all things and endure all things.” A principle is stated which applies to superior and inferior attitudes alike: “Love does not insist on its own way” (13:5). This strategy should produce a salutary result in the body, viz., a healing of division and genuine unity: “That there be no discord in the body, but all the members may have the same care for one another” (12:25). This sense of group identity is correspondingly applied to the gifts which are the subject of the discussion in chs 12–14. Although there are “varieties of gift … varieties of service … varieties of working” (12:4–6), each of these is given “for the common good” (12:7).

V.    The Resurrection Body

One final text interests us: the discussion of “with what kind of body” are the dead raised? (15:35ff). The perspective of these remarks is anthropological, so questions of gnosticism or Greek background in the Corinthian argument over whether there is a resurrection (15:12) cannot be addressed here. Rather I am interested in why Paul emphatically insists on BODY as the appropriate characteristic of the risen state: “It is raised a spiritual BODY. If there is a physical BODY, there is also a spiritual BODY” (15:44).

From the perspective of this essay, one would expect that there might be two contrasting views of the resurrection, views which perhaps are compatible and consistent with the Pauline and non-Pauline positions discussed throughout this work. And in fact, critical scholarship has suggested a coherent reconstruction of the non-Pauline viewpoint of the Corinthian pneumatics. Briefly, then, the pneumatics are 1) credited with espousing an overly realized eschatology (4:8), 2) whereby they are beyond the body, which is at best neutral (6:12–13), and into things spiritual; 3) the result is the abolition of all control and the celebration of radical freedom: “All things are lawful!” (6:12; 10:23), 4) which results in a denial of social and sexual differentiation (5:1–2; 11:2–16); 5) in this perspective, “resurrection” would be perceived as a spiritual condition unrestrained by and unrelated to the physical and social BODY.

This perspective is reflected in 15:45–49. A radical contrast is made between Adam and Christ, which would imply that in the es chaton, when Christ and his followers are “resurrected,” what results is “spirit” and not body.

First Adam

Second Adam

1.    The first Adam became a “living being” (psychēn);

1.    The last Adam became a “life-giving spirit” (pneuma);

2.    The physical (to psychikon) is first,

2.    then the spiritual (to peumatikon);

3.    As was the man of earth so are those who are of dust;

3.    and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven.

A radical distinction is made between what is (a) a “living being … physical … of earth” and (b) “a life-giving spirit … spiritual … of heaven.” Although this is probably Pauline in origin, it is certainly capable of being co-opted by the pneumatics, especially 15:45 where it says that “the last Adam (the risen Jesus) became a SPIRIT.” Historical questions aside, my interest lies in what correlation there might be between one’s view of body and of resurrection. In the case of Paul’s opponents, it would seem that resurrection as SPIRIT would adequately express their eschatological perspective and reflect their typology of a non-controlled body.

The Pauline perspective on eschatology differs on every point from that of the pneumatics at Corinth. 1) Eschatology is “realized” in one sense, but not overly; for death still reigns (15:23) and all things are not yet under Christ’s feet (15:24–28); judgment remains (4:5; 5:13; 6:2). 2) Christians are not beyond the body, for “it is not meant for immorality but for the Lord” (6:13). 3) Even as baptized and gifted with the Spirit, Christians are subject to rules and authority; their freedom is not absolute; 4) and so, social and sexual differentiation is expected and appropriate (11:3; 12:14–21). 5) Resurrection, then, is appropriately expressed as resurrection of BODY, not escape from body into SPIRIT.

Paul’s discourse on “what kind of body occurs in the resurrection” is governed by a basic purity principle. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50). It must be “changed” (15:52). This is based on a map of heaven which indicates that God is radically different from humankind. God is imperishable and immortal, and can never know corruption. What is perishable and mortal will corrupt, and so does not belong in the circle of what is immortal and imperishable. It must be “changed” by putting on “immortality and imperishability” (15:53–54). Yet what comes into God’s presence is ultimately BODY, albeit transformed BODY.

The substance of Paul’s argument occurs in 15:35–44, when a series of three contrasts is presented. First, dried and dead seeds are contrasted with living plants (15:36–37); then terrestrial bodies are contrasted with celestial bodies (15:39–41); finally, un-resurrected bodies are contrasted with resurrection bodies (15:42–44). But the common denominator in the analogical argument is the fact that living plants, celestial phenomena, and resurrected persons are all described in somatic language as BODIES:

1.    “What you sow is not the BODY which is to be, but a bare kernel” (15:37).

2.    “There are celestial BODIES and there are terrestrial BODIES” (15:40).

3.    “It is sown a physical BODY; it is raised a spiritual BODY. If there is a physical BODY, there is also a spiritual BODY” (15:44).

How is this so? As God gave bodies at creation, so God will also allocate bodies in the eschaton: “God will give it a BODY as he has chosen” (15:39). The holy, immortal, and imperishable God himself gives an appropriate BODY to what is mortal and perishable so that it may come into God’s holy space.

Commentators often remark that Paul’s idea of a “spiritual body” contains the sense of “a total person controlled by God’s spirit” (Sider 1975:434). “Control” is the operative concept here, for just as Paul would see a charismatic body on earth acting orderly and in control (14:32), so should a spiritual body in heaven. The idea of order and control is communicated in the insistence that what is raised is a BODY.

Paul’s insistence on BODY even in the resurrected state replicates his general body typology. The “bodies” which are described in 15:36–41 are differentiated bodies which may be ranked in a hierarchy. The classification system on earth ranks bodies as 1) human, 2) animal, 3) bird, and 4) fish; this, or course, is based on God’s work at creation. There is a corresponding classification and hierarchy in “celestial bodies”: 1) sun, 2) moon, and 3) stars. Even among heavenly bodies, “star differs from star in glory” (15:41). One should see this alongside other remarks about Christian resurrection where there is order, pattern and differentiation: “In Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (15:22–23). In heaven, there will be a distinct hierarchy among its inhabi tants: God, Christ, then Christians. In the risen state in God’s presence, moreover, there will not be a total abolition of authority and structure. True, “every rule and every authority and power” will be put under Christ’s feet (15:24), but then Christ will be under God’s feet (see 15:28). For the head of Christ is God; the head of man is Christ. As it is on earth, so it will be in heaven.

According to Paul, then, the heavenly world will maintain important elements of the earthly world. As God differentiated the parts of the physical and social body (12:18, 24), so “God will give it a (risen) body as he has chosen” (15:38). As there is a hierarchy of “heads” and authority on earth (11:3), so Christ will be subject to God even when the end comes and all is put under his feet (15:24–28). As there was BODY on earth, which implied order and control, so Paul maintains that there will be BODY in heaven as well. The order of God’s creation will not be abolished in heaven.

VI.    A Model: The Athlete’s Body

Paul’s attitude to the physical body and its replication of the social body is never clearer than in the athletic metaphor he uses in 9:24–27. As far as the metaphor goes, the physical body is subject to strong regulation. Every athlete “exercises self control in all things” (9:25); an athlete “regulates” his body and “subdues” it (9:27). No individual member of the body escapes this control: the legs do not run aimlessly nor do the fists box the air (9:26). This points to strong coordination of the individual members toward a common goal, for the common good.

The metaphor serves as the final point in Paul’s argument to the knowledgeable ones who proclaim freedom to eat idol meat. He has shown in ch 9 that he himself is as “free” as anyone in regard to specific items, such as support; he has a right (exousia, 9:4, 6, 12) which is validated in tradition, Jesus’ words and the Law. Yet Paul voluntarily regulates this right and foregoes its privileges (9:15, 17) for the sake of the common good, viz., the preaching of the gospel (9:23). Paul seeks not his own good, but the good of others, “I have become all things to all men that I might save some” (9:22). He presents his own behavior as a model for those who would eat idol meat: restraint of freedom (vs. exercise of rights) for the sake of communal cohesion (vs. individualism).

The athlete metaphor reinforces this argument by showing circumstances where discipline, self-control, regulation of the body, and group-oriented behavior are appropriate. Paul’s use of the athlete metaphor implies that it is appropriate in his life as a general principle, not just in regard to his rights and freedoms. And so, Paul implies, life is an athletic contest and the discipline, regulation, self-control appropriate to athletic training are perennial norms structuring one’s life. This, of course, is the predictable attitude to the body from the viewpoint of a strong “group” or controlled body cosmology.

Summary and Conclusions

Mary Douglas’ remarks on BODY and her anthropological model prove to be an accurate and useful heuristic device for evaluating the contrasting attitudes to body in 1 Corinthians. In particular, Paul’s viewpoint in the letter may be accurately described according to the cosmology of a controlled body (strong “group”/high “grid”), whereas the position attributed to Paul’s opponents in 1 Corinthians fits the cosmology of a group which is weak “group”/low “grid.” Valuable also is the insight into the correlation of physical and social body, viz., how attitudes to the physical body are replicated in the way the social body is perceived. Douglas’ model, moreover, suggested a coherent interpretation of Paul’s perspective by indicating the cultural cosmology of the author and how consistently interrelated Paul’s remarks are in regard to freedom, authority, rules, roles, etc. According to Douglas’ model, Paul perceives the world through a dominant value, “holiness” or “purity,” which structures the way the social and physical bodies are perceived and regulated.

Social Holiness

Physical Holiness

1.    unity, cohesion

1.    wholeness, bodily integrity

2.    clear roles, status, & classifications

2.    hierarchy of bodily parts, especially head & members

3.    boundaries marked & guarded

3.    orifices & surfaces regulated

Alternately, the chief evil in Paul’s world is “pollution,” which likewise is expressed in both social and physical terms.

Social Pollution

Physical Pollution

1. factions, divisions

1. split or deformed bodies

2. confused roles; weak authority

2. weak bodily discipline or differentiation of body parts; confused gender indication

3. porous boundaries

3. unguarded orifices & surfaces

The successful application of Douglas’ model to 1 Corinthians tends to confirm the accuracy of the model, even as it serves as a principle of consistency for delineating what Paul thinks of a particular issue. The model offered a window into the consistency and coherence of Paul’s perspective and it served to throw light on many troublesome passages and to generate fresh inquiry into the text.

One might ask, however, whether Paul’s perspective in 1 Corinthians is typical of him? Is the model applicable to other Pauline letters? It is beyond the scope of this study to pursue these important questions. But a quick glance at the Pauline corpus suggests places to test the model in other Pauline letters and to ascertain whether the positions taken in 1 Corinthians are typical of Paul elsewhere. For example, (1) Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians with holiness of the body should be compared with his remarks on holiness in Rom 12:1–2; 13:12–14, Phil 1:20 and 1 Thess 4:1–8. (2) His concern with regulating bodily orifices in 1 Corinthians might be compared with remarks about eating in Rom 14–15 (esp. 14:21) and about marriage in 1 Thess 4:4–7 and 2 Cor 6:14–7:1. (3) The understanding of the church as a “body” in Rom 12:4–8 could be compared with the use of that metaphor in 1 Cor 12. (4) One might also wish to reevaluate the designation of the members of Paul’s churches as “the saints” in the light of this material. (5) The importance of authority in 1 Corinthians might be compared with Paul’s advice to be obedient to legitimate authority in Rom 13.

Besides these specific body issues, a comparison could be made of Paul’s attitudes to related topics in 1 Corinthians and the other letters. For example, the value given to roles and rank within the church and in the secular world might be assessed; one thinks immediately of Rom 13:1–7, but also of Phil 2:19–30. The contextualized understanding of freedom in 1 Corinthians might profitably be compared with the language of “slaves of God … and of righteousness” in Rom 6:13–22, especially in light of the diatribal false conclusion that Christians might be “lawless.” Gal 5:1 and 13–15 deserve to be assessed in this light as well. The perception of pollution threatening the group could also be investigated, whether this means pollution as seduction (see 2 Cor 11:1–3, 12–15) or as threat to unity (see Gal 5:15, 22; Phil 3:1–11 (esp. 6–7)). The personal identity of members of the church as group oriented might be tested in Phil 2:1–5, 14–18 (esp 2:3–4) and in 1 Thess 1:3 and 4:9–12.

The use of Douglas’ anthropological materials is not intended as a replacement for classical NT scholarship but precisely as an aid to recovering the cultural Sitz im Leben of Paul and his churches. Through this type of analysis one begins to gain an appreciation of Paul’s world from his point of view. Thus this model and approach should be considered as a welcome addition to the toolbox of historical criticism.

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1974    “You are God’s ‘Sukkah’ (1 Cor 3:10–17).” NTS 21:139–42.

Forkman, Goran

1972    The Limits of Religious Community: Expulsion from the Religious Community within the Qumran Sect, within Rabbinic Judaism, and within Primitive Christianity. Lund: Gleerup.

Gärtner, Bertil

1965    The Temple and the Community in Qumran and the New Testament. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Goffmann, Erving

1959    The Presentation of the Self in Every-Day Life. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.

Grollig, F. X. and Haley, Harold B. (eds.) 1976 Medical Anthropology. The Hague: Mouton.

Gundry, Robert H.

1976    SOMA in Biblical Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Edward

1959    The Silent Language. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday.

Hollenbach, B.

1979    “Col ii.23: Which Things Lead to the Fulfilment of the Flesh.” NTS 25:254–61.

Horsley, Richard A.

1976    “Pneumatikos vs Psychikos: Distinctions of Spiritual Status among the Corinthians.” HTR 69:269–88.

Horsley, Richard A.

1978a    “Consciousness and Freedom among the Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 8–10.” CBQ 40:574–89.

Horsley, Richard A.

1978b    “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Spiritual Elitism in Corinth.” NT 20:203–31.

Hurd, John C.

1983    The Origin of 1 Corinthians. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Hunzinger, C. H.

1954    Die jüdische Bannpraxis im neutestamentlicher Zeitalter. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.

Isenberg, Sheldon K.

1975    “Mary Douglas and Hellenistic Religions: the Case of Qumran.” Pp. 179–85 in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Isenberg, Sheldon K. and Owen, Dennis E.

1977    “Bodies natural and Contrived: The Work of Mary Douglas.” Religious Studies Review 3:1–16.

Jeremias, Joachim

1955    “Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor XV.50).” NTS 2:151–59.

Jewett, Robert

1971    Paul’s Anthropological Terms. Leiden: Brill.

Käsemann, Ernst

1971    “The Theological Problem Presented by the Motif of the Body of Christ.” Pp. 102–21 in Perspectives on Paul. Philadelphia. Fortress Press.

Kraemer, R. S.

1979    “Ecstasy and Possession: the Attraction of Women to the Cult of Dionysius.” HTR 71:55–80.

Kürzinger, J.

1978    “Frau und Mann nach 1 Kor 11, 11f.” BZ 22:270–75.

Lampe, G. W. H.

1967    “Church Discipline and the Interpretation of the Epistles to the Corinthians.” Pp. 337–61 in Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox.

Leach, E. R.

1958    “Magical Hair.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 88:147–64.

Lincoln, A. T.

1979    “Paul the Visionary’: The Setting and Significance of the Rapture to Paradise in II Corinthians XII.1–10.” NTS 25:204–20.

MacRae, D. G.

1975    “The Body and Social Metaphors.” Pp. 59–63 in The Body as Medium of Expression.

Malina, Bruce J.

1978a    “The Social World Implied in the Letters of the Christian Bishop Martyr (Named Ignatius of Antioch).” Vol. 2, Pp. 71–119 in Society of Biblical Literature Papers. 2 vols. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Malina, Bruce J.

1978b    “Freedom: A Theological Inquiry into the Dimensions of a Symbol.” BTB 8:62–76.

Malina, Bruce J.

1979    “The Individual and Community—Personality in the Social World of Early Christianity.” BTB 9:126–38.

Malina, Bruce J.

1981    The New Testament World. Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Atlanta, GA: John Knox.

Mauss, Marcel

1973    “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society 2:70–88.

Meeks, Wayne A.

1974    “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity.” HR 13:165–208.

Meeks, Wayne A.

1977    “In One Body: the Unity of Humankind in Colossians and Ephesians.” Pp. 209–21 in God’s Christ and His People: Studies in Honor of Nils Alstrup Dahl. Jacob Jervell and Wayne Meeks (eds.). Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Meeks, Wayne A.

1983    The First Urban Christians. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Miguens, M.

1975    “1 Cor. 13:8–13 Reconsidered.” CBQ 37:86–97.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome

1978a    “Corinthian Slogans in 1 Cor 6:12–20.” CBQ 40:391–96.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome

1978b    “Freedom of the Ghetto (1 Cor VIII. 1–3; X.23–XI.1).” RB 85:543–74.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome

1979    “Food and Spiritual Gifts in 1 Cor 8:8.” CBQ 41:292–98.

Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome

1980    “Sex and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.” CBQ 42:482.

Needham, Rodney (ed.)

1973    Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Pearson, Birger

1973    The Pneumatikos-Psychikos Terminology in 1 Corinthians. A Study in the Theology of the Corinthian Opponents of Paul in Relation to Gnosticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pilch, John

1981    “Biblical Leprosy and Body Symbolism.” BTB 11:108–13.

Polhemus, Ted

1975    “Social Bodies.” Pp. 13–35 in The Body as a Medium of Expression.

Postal, Susan Koessler

1965    “Body-Image and Identity: A Comparison of Kwakiutl and Hopi.” American Anthropologist 67:455–60.

Robinson, John A. T.

1952    The Body. A Study in Pauline Theology. London: SCM Press.

Richardson, Peter

1980    “Judgment, Immorality, and Sexual Ethics in 1 Corinthians 6.” Pp. 337–57 in SBL Seminar Papers. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.

Rosato, Philip

1977    “Spirit Christology: Ambiguity and Promise.” TS 38:423–49.

Scheflen, Albert and Alice

1972    Body Language and the Social Order: Communication as Behavioral Control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schilder, Paul

1950    The Image and Appearance of the Human Body. New York: International University Press.

Schüssler-Fiorenza, Elizabeth

1983    In Memory of Her. New York: Crossroads.

Schwartz, Barry

1981    Vertical Classification: A Study in Structuralism and the Sociology of Knowledge. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Schweizer, E.

1971a    “Sōma.” TDNT VII 1024–94.

Schweizer, E.

1971b.    “Sarx.” TDNT VII 98–151.

Scroggs, Robin

1972    “Paul and the Eschatological Woman.” JAAR 40:283–303.

Scroggs, Robin

1974    “Paul and the Eschatological Woman: Revisited.” JAAR 42:532–37.

Scroggs, Robin

1983    The New Testament and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Sider, R.J.

1975    “The Pauline Conception of the Resurrection Body in 1 Corinthians XV.35–54.” NTS 21:428–39.

Sider, R.J.

1977    “St. Paul’s Understanding of the Nature and Significance of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians XV 1–19.” NT 19:124–41.

Smith, M.

1980    “Pauline Worship as Seen by Pagans.” HTR 73:241–49.

Strugnell, John

1960    “The Angelic Liturgy at Qumran.” VT Supp 7:318–45.

Theissen, Gerd

1982    The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Thiselton, A. C.

1973    “The Meaning of Sarx in 1 Corinthians 5:5 A Fresh Approach in the Light of Logical and Semantic Factors.” SJT 26:204–27.

Thiselton, A. C.

1978    “Realized Eschatology at Corinth.” NTS 24:510–26.

Thiselton, A. C.

1979    “The ‘Interpretation’ of Tongues: A New Suggestion in Light of Greek Usage in Philo and Josephus.” JTS 30:15–36.

Thrall, M. E.

1977    “The Problem of II Cor VI.14–VII.1 in Some Recent Discussion.” NTS 24:132–148.

Turner, Victor

1969    The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Press.

Wedderburn, A. J. M.

1981    “The Problem of the Denial of the Resurrection in 1 Cor XV.” NT 23:229–41.

Windisch, Hans

1964    “Zymeµ”. TDNT II 902–906.

The Received View and What It Cannot Do: III John and Hospitality *

Bruce J. Malina

Creighton University


The Received View is a philosophy of science label referring to the way of understanding things in vogue among a large number of practitioners and in the popular mind. The Received View is under attack in a number of disciplines, including biblical scholarship. An alternative view, called the “Social Sciences View,” is presented. This approach to biblical interpretation is developed in terms of III John and the question of hospitality. The Received View and the “Social Sciences View” are contrasted for greater clarity, specifically in terms of the recent Received View treatment of III John and hospitality by A. Malherbe.


The Received View is a label used in the philosophy of science to characterize the prescribed way of asking and answering questions in a given academic discipline. It is the way of understanding things currently in vogue among a large number of practitioners and in the popular mind (Webster, Jacox, Baldwin, Current Issue in Nursing 1981:23). The Received View is a very powerful and dogmatic orthodoxy, controlling academic departments, key journals as well as grant and/or fellowship bestowing agencies. The Received View dictates the criteria that are to control “convincing” and “unconvincing” contributions to the field. As a label, the term Received View is a sarcastic and unfriendly one in the hands of its critics, and it is in this sense that it has been adopted here.

A.    The “Received View” in Biblical Studies

The Received View is under attack in a number of disciplines ranging from nursing (Webster, Jacox, Baldwin, Current Issue in Nursing 1981), through sociology (Verdon, Comparative Studies in Society and History 1980, American Journal of Sociology 1981, 1982), to economics (McCloskey, Journal of Economic Literature 1983). There are those of us in biblical studies who are dissatisfied with the Received View in our discipline as well, largely because it is not adequate to its aims and claims, i.e. to interpret texts historically. Meanings, past and present, that are realized in language, are in fact ultimately rooted in a social system (see Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic: TheSocial Interpretation of Language and Meaning 1978). This being the case, to interpret a text and set forth its historical meaning(s) requires some significant appreciation of the social system(s) in which the texts were produced (see Malina, Interpretation 1982, American Baptist Quarterly 1983). Supporters of the Received View, however, are generally unaware of or unconcerned with social systems. As a result, scholars currently adopting the Received View continue to produce some of the best 19th century commentaries ever written (see Collins, Introduction to the New Testament, 1983, e.g., for a Received View introduction to the New Testament, including structuralism and social history).

Some characteristic features of the Received View include: a passion for full bibliography (under pain of acute embarrassment at missing even a single item, thus throwing heavy doubt on scholarly ability), for non-statistical word counts, for definitions and excursus of supposedly “theological” words; the confusion of theology (doctrine of God) with ideology; the identification of meanings in ancient texts that turn out to be suspiciously the same as those held by the Received View on other grounds; the endless reference to other biblical passages in such a way as to imply, for example, that New Testament authors knew each other’s works well. All these features make the Received View questionable, at least in the U.S. cultural context.

Furthermore, gatekeepers of the Received View find terms such as culture, social structure, politics, economics, social interaction, social ambivalence and the like unacceptable, or use them indiscriminately and without sensitivity to their specialized meanings. Yet they find no problem in defining and imposing words such as theologoumenon, demythologize, deeschatologize, parousiac, Christ-event, paschal mystery and the like on whatever publics they choose. The jargon words, of course, more often than not derive from Germany, as does the Received View itself. There is little I care to say about the Germanic bias; de gustibus and all that. But it is important to note that the Received View in biblical scholarship does in fact derive from German scholarship (see, e.g., Oden, Society of Biblical Literature 1980 Seminar Papers 1980; Hynes, Shirley Jackson Case and the Chicago School: The Socio-Historical Method 1981:87–114). As a set of implicit theories, the Received View was imaginatively designed to meet a set of culturally specific problems, notably those spawned by the belated impact of the Enlightenment, industrialization and nationalism in Germany (see Iggers, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present 1968; Anchor, Germany Confronts Modernization: German Culture and Society, 1790–1890 1972; Lowie, Toward Understanding Germany 1954).

In theology, of course, the Received View looked (and looks?) to German religious values and the religious institutions that realized it. Accordingly, it may be no wonder that many U.S. students are left unsatisfied with the methods and outcomes of the Received View. Too much study time yielding too little pastoral pay-off is frustrating; too much native ability with not enough culturally relevant challenge is boring. After all, listing who said what about what (the scholarly hand count) is a useful first step only if it leads to more than just another vote. For any scholarly first step should feed into the basic question: what meanings did the biblical author(s) impart to his/their audience, and what meanings might those dimensions take in the various Christian movement groups of today. The rejection of the Received View, however is not a rejection of the fine, historical contributions to the Western scholarly tradition made by 19th century German scholars from Karl Marx to the present. The problem is that we find ourselves near the end of the 20th century, and in a culture that has gone through some significant step-level changes since the 1800’s. Are things still all that much the same in the “Western” scholarly tradition today as they were a century and a half ago? (See Barraclough, Main Trend in History 1978:6ff. for historians who believe so!).

On the other hand, another group of biblical scholars, also dissatisfied with the Received View, has returned to old Athenian education—artistic rather than intellectual (e.g. literary aspects of the Bible, literary structuralism, reader-reception models, psycholinguistics in general). This reaction focuses on how an author said what he said. It can be distinguished from the Received View’s focus on what an author said and meant to say. What the literary view and the Received View have in common is that they are both heavily psychological. They differ in that the literary view strives for ahistoricity, while the Received View is eminently historical. To protect the Received View from the ahistorical encroachments of the literary perspective as well as to deal with the difficulties generated by the Received View in the world of contemporary scholarship, some of its proponents have settled upon a compromise. This compromise often takes the name of “social history.”

B.    The Received View and “Social History”

Social history is a relatively recent approach to interpreting the past. Historical research of the 19th century saw its task to be the descrip tion of “what really happened” in the past. This was realized by the historian’s discovery of “new facts” and the elimination of error by the exercise of “historical criticism.” Historical criticism 6 meant (and means) the marshalling and interpretation of data in terms of the historian’s imaginative faculties and individual genius. Since about 1950 a number of historians have formally taken up the questions and procedures of social scientists to produce “social history”—the study of human beings as group members immersed in given societies in the past (Hobsbawm, Daedalus 1971; see Hecht, International Encyclopedia of the Social sciences 1968).

Social scientists approach their sources with specific questions in mind, with a view to locating the information generated by those questions within some theoretical framework of concepts and hypotheses to produce intelligibility and interpretations. Social historians proceed in the same way.

“But in practice there are two main differences. The first is that the historian’s conceptualization tends to be implicit, arbitrary, and unsystematic, whereas the social scientist’s is explicit and systematic. The second is the (social) historian’s tendency, because his sources usually provide him with some sort of loose narrative pattern to which the facts can be related, to evade so far as possible the theoretical issues, and also to deal for preference less with the underlying structure than with events and personalities, which are usually far more sharply delineated in historical records than in the materials anthropologists and sociologists commonly use” (Barraclough, Main Trend in History 1978:49–50).

The following table offers a listing that compares the Received View with a feasible alternative, which might be called the “Social Science View” (see Malina, Interpretation 1982, American Baptist Quarterly 1983, 1984c). Perhaps the latter will become the Received View of tomorrow.

Table 1: Comparing the Received View with the Social Science View



    Full bibliography; no items missing

    Adequate bibliography; librarians provide full bibliography.

    Mathematical word counts.

    Statistical tests, e.g. x square.

    “Theological” words and “concepts” are focused on.

    “Theology” is called ideology, unless it is in fact describing a “theos” model.

    Words and ideas chosen for treatment are those relevant to the world of the Received View.

    Words and ideas chosen for for treatment are those relevant to the time of the document under scrutiny.

    Culture described in the document looks amazingly like the culture of the adherents of the Received View.

    Culture described in the document has little or nothing in common with that of the interpreter(s).

    Bible is always a necessary intertextual referent.

    Bible as intertextual referent requires proof or testing.

    Dogmatic in presentation.

    Open and questioning in presentation.

    Offers assertions for interpretation, i.e. untestable generalizations.

    Offers a wider frame of reference or model for for interpretation.

    Its history is intuitive history, based on the insights and genius of the individual historian.

    Its history is an explicit social science enterprise, based on some articulate hypothesis testable by others.

    Current view or leading opinion depends on a hand count of intuitive authorities.

    Current view or leading opinion depends on probability of fit with increasingly refined models.

C.    An Example of the Received View Concerning III John

The main trouble with a number of scholars who do social history with a view to interpreting the Bible is that they often are neither social enough nor historical enough, except in terms of the Received View’s assessment of history as described above. To move this discussion to a more concrete level, I will choose a manageable New Testament text recently treated by a scholar in terms of social history. I hope to indicate how such treatment admirably follows the canons of the Received View and even adds to our fund of knowledge. Yet in the end, such studies still leave the question of interpretation and meaning unresolved.

Furthermore, since I am committed to the sociolinguistic view that a text is a meaningful configuration of language intended to communicate, I presume that only actual or theoretical whole documents form texts. In the Received View, “text” means “preaching text” and can be any bit of language, from word to extended passage. However, words, sentences and passages are not texts but text-segments. What text-segments have in common, as a rule, is that they are understandable but not interpretable, e.g., “She did so!” (see Halliday, 1978:passim). Words suggest thoughts, sentences express complete thoughts, but only texts communicate meaning(s). It would seem the better part of wisdom, then, to refuse to deal with text-segments apart from their texts. While words and sentences do, in fact, need to be understood, interpretation requires fitting the whole text into some larger frame of reference. If we are seeking historical meaning, and meaning derives from and constitutes the social system, then this larger frame for New Testament texts is first century Mediterranean society in general, and a given, concrete audience in particular.

For a text which can be read quickly and which has received ample, recent Received View consideration, I propose III John. The text is interesting in many ways for social science analysis. Large quantities of information from the prevailing social system are required to provide the interpreter with the meaning it yielded its original receiver(s). This information cannot be generated without some social science models. To see this point, consider how an advocate of the updated Received View treats it. I choose as my “straw man” Abraham J. Malherbe’s treatment of “Hospitality and Inhospitality in the Church,” a reprint of his 1977 article Malherbe1977), now in his revised and expanded Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Malherbe, 1983). Malherbe offers all the hallmarks of the au courant advocates of the updated Received View: a disdain for theory; a remarkable unconcern for defining the terms under discussion (here: hospitality); a passion for up-to-date historical bibliography, the more esoteric the better; a sort of hand-count assessment of previously published work generally beginning with the historical “stars” of the past who most often turn out to be German in training and/or primary enculturation.

Alternatively, my own emphasis derives from the social sciences and focuses upon the process of getting back to the original audience of a given writing by means of the social system scenarios within which the original communication took place. To do this with some verifiable credibility, one needs social science theories and models that are quite explicit, if only to keep the interpreter and his/her social system from in truding and distorting the original range of communications encoded in the texts (see Malina, 1983).

Thanks to recent comparative literature studies (Funk, 1967; Kim, 1974), we know that III John is a Hellenistic letter, specifically a letter of recommendation for a person going to a situation where the letter writer has an inhospitable foe, namely Diotrephes. Thus comments relative to the letter are sure to speak of the rank of the sender, the addressee and the persons mentioned in the letter (were they church officials or not). Brown (1982:699), for example, describes III John as follows: “A letter from the Presbyter to Gaius urging his continued hospitality to missionaries (and to Demetrius in particular)—a hospitality now all the more important because Diotrephes has refused it in the church in which he ranks first.” He offers the following literary outline of the letter: opening formula (sender, addressee, health wish): vv. 1–2; body of the letter: vv. 3–14; concluding formula: v. 15 (1982:701–702). Recent commentators note the question of inhospitality, and use it to make several significant historical points: the period of the letter is characterized by mobility, the rise of a network of inns, the need for and practice of private hospitality.

Malherbe notes, for example, that: “The mobility which characterized the period brought with it a system of inns which sought to meet the needs and desires of travelers. The inns, however, did not enjoy a good reputation among the upper classes, being considered centers of all sorts of nefarious activities and offering poor service. Whenever possible, therefore, discriminating travelers availed themselves of the hospitality of business associates and other acquaintances. The early church reflects the mobility of Roman society as well as the practice of private hospitality” (1983:95).

“In addition to the material support of travelers, Christian hospitality was further manifested in the phenomenon of the house church. In its earliest period the churches had no buildings designed for their religious services and seem to have met primarily in hospitable homes” (1983:96).

Malherbe would have us believe that his essay is “sociology” (1983:122, and below). Yet his social description lacks the theoretical modelling and explicit use of generalizations that the sociological approach utilizes to remove ambiguity. On the contrary, the foregoing observations are replete with ambiguity. To begin with, the interpretative model being applied is left at the implicit and impressionistic level; without further qualifications, the resulting observations are simply ethnocentric. For example, Malherbe neither defines what he means by “mobility,” nor does he specify the quality of the mobility to which he refers. Presumably he means physical mobility. But physical mobility bears a whole range of social meanings, not the least of which is the solidarity or lack of it symbolled on the horizontal plane.

In any analysis of the social organization of the first century Mediterranean, four “mobility” dimensions, both singly and in combination, have to be considered. The vertical dimension (high/low, up/down), the natural symbol of power (Schwartz, 1981), is but one aspect, perhaps of little direct concern to Rome’s subjects because the center of the empire preempted the symbol (see Brunt 1982). Other aspects include the dimension of size or mass (bigger/smaller relating to landholdings, slaveholdings, income or some other measurable quantity deemed socially significant), the dimension of depth assessment (surface to deep, relating to influence, perspicuity and the like), and finally, the dimension of horizontal classification (first/last, relating to commitment, loyalty, precedence, prestige). Physical mobility on a horizontal plane is quite often a natural symbol of this last dimension, the dimension that counted in the 1st century Mediterranean (see Malina, 1981:25–50). Furthermore, physical mobility takes on culturally specific meanings (and functions, for functionalists), depending on whether it is pilgrimage, business travel, mass exile, teamstering army movements, and the like. Moreover, Malherbe speaks of hospitality as though the meaning of the term were quite apparent to contemporary U.S. persons who use the term largely to refer to the entertaining of relatives and friends. He presumes that Christians met for “religious” services, again assuming his readers know what he means. I suggest that terms such as mobility, hospitality and religion in a first century Mediterranean letter have little if anything to do with contemporary U.S. experience, hence are precisely and specifically the terms needing clarification.

Throughout the brief essay, the author is much concerned with the question of “office.” For example:

From events in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5–9) we know that such patrons (i.e. hosts who extended hospitality) assumed legal responsibility for the groups meeting in their houses. Exactly what status in the congregations which met in their houses this service conferred on them is not totally clear. An answer to that question involves one’s understanding of the meaning of proistēmi in its various contexts in the New Testament, a matter that cannot be gone into in detail here. It would appear certain that in the Pauline letters the term does not denote an office (Malherbe, 1983:97–98).

Be that as it may, the Pastorals do not provide evidence that bishops derived authority from providing hospitality to the church. What authority they may have had they derived elsewhere (Malherbe, 1983:99).

Of course, the question here is who was/is concerned about “office,” and the link between hospitality and “office,” etc., the first century Christian or the 20th century churchman? I find the question simply irrelevant and misleading relative to the real issues at stake in the first century Mediterranean world. Here a chief issue is not “office,” but the moral brokerage, ability and honor of the Elder/Presbyter (see Boissevain, 1974:147–163 on brokerage).

When Malherbe moves on to giving reasons for compliance or non-compliance with the request for hospitality by the Elder, he has recourse to the usual superficial psychology we have come to expect from the Received View. Thus, for example: “One reason given for fulfilling the request is that the recommended person may testify (martureō) to the writer of the good reception with which he had met.” (1983:103) But the question is why such “testimony” would matter at all. This point is left unanswered. Or again: “Third John is, then, at once a commendation of Gaius for his earlier hospitality, and a recommendation of Demetrius. It should further be noted that, although it is a personal letter, v. 15 would indicate that it has a wider reference than Gaius alone” (and footnote 47: “Cf. also Philemon, which is more than a purely personal letter.”) (1983:105). Again, why would these letters have the more than personal quality Malherbe feels they do? No attempt to explain the point is made. Hospitality, moreover, remains undefined and undescribed.

As he concludes his essay, Malherbe focuses on explanation for behavior as follows: “What is at isue is Diotrephes’ refusal to receive the letter of recommendation that has been written: ‘but Diotrephes who likes to put himself first (philoprōteuōn) among them, does not welcome (epidechetai) us.’ The Elder seems to think that Diotrephes had seen in the letter a threat to his own preeminence in the church, and that he had therefore rejected the letter as well as the bearers.”

“In letters of recommendation, such as the letter referred to in v. 9, the request on behalf of the persons recommended was that they be received for the sake of the writer” (1983:106). Why this practice? How does it refer to the narrower context of hospitality and the wider context of Mediterranean social structure and cultural values? Malherbe does not answer such questions.

His psychologistic explanation proceeds as follows:

The reception of the letter and its bearer proved the good will of the recipient toward the writer. It is such an understanding of epidechomai that is present in vv. 9 and 10. Diotrephes had shown his ill will toward the Elder by refusing his letter and his emissaries. In addition, he slandered the Elder, and adding insult to injury, imposed his will on the brethren who would act contrary to his wishes. We must be content with the fact that we do not know what Diotrephes’ reasons were for his conduct. We are limited to the Elder’s view of the matter and he sees it as a purely personal issue (1983:107).

Why a purely personal issue in a letter meant to be more than personal? Is it in fact the case that we do not know the reasons for Diotrephes’ conduct, or rather that Malherbe does not know them because he does not take Mediterranean society seriously enough as an interpretative framework? To be sure, he does not seem to know or care about the rules of hospitality typical of the culture, and hence raises a series of nonquestions, again, a procedure common in the Received View. Part of the reason for such non-questions lies in the categories used by the interpreter. For example, he states in a note:

It is probably significant that III John, which is itself a letter of recommendation, does not request that hospitality be extended to the traveling brethren for the sake of the Elder. Instead, Diotrephes is threatened with (v. 10) and Gaius is promised (vv. 13 ff.) a personal visit. It is noteworthy that even in recommending the brethren to Gaius, he offers theological rather than personal reasons for doing so (1983:107, note 50).

Of course, the categories called “theological” and “personal” in this description are Malherbe’s. The extent to which they explain anything at all, or how they might be significant for the author of III John and his recipients, is undemonstrable. Again, to state one’s position directly and clearly without any wider frame of reference to warrant the position is typical of the dogmatic approach of the Received View. It is the collection of dogmatic views of “authorities” that constitutes the range of authoritative opinions available to scholars and laymen alike. It is important to underscore the fact that such opinions for the most part are rooted in implicit assumptions and impressionistic models. For this reason the positions generated by the Received View are simply untestable. Furthermore, it often appears that its adherents adopt its results more out of loyalty than argument, more due to networking and group feelings rather than intellectual articulation. As Brannigan has pointed out (1981), this is not all that unusual among scholarly scientists.

These are some of the difficulties I find with Malherbe’s explanation of III John. There are more, and he is by no means the only representative of the Received View. However his chutzpah makes him a good illustration. Consider the final paragraph of the book, newly written for its re-edition:

I have been criticized quite properly for my indiscriminate use of ‘social’ and ‘sociological.’ I have difficulty accepting, however, the suggestion that ‘social description’ be used for the type of investigation that I have attempted, and that ‘sociological’ be reserved for analysis or interpretation that makes use of the methods and models of the discipline of sociology. Such a limitation of the latter seems to me to be arbitrary (1983:122).

Curious about this statement is the fact that Malherbe is not concerned about standard usage, is perfectly at home with Germanisms and would have us rewrite the dictionary on his behalf. Since language and labelling with language are in fact quite arbitrary, why does he not call his work “The Socioreligiological Sociopolitology of Early Christianity”? After all, both “religiology” and “politology” are good Germanisms, and a prefixed “socio-” before words already referring to essentially social behaviors is de rigeur. Since the Received View is rooted in German scholarship, and since in German usage there is no difference between “sozial” and “soziologisch,” why would there be a difference in English? For what is in fact the first exegetical language if not German?

Be that as it may, let us turn to the meanings communicated by means of the text called III John. On any reading, it does in fact deal with hospitality, recommendations for hospitality, the refusal of hospitality and the threat of a personal visit instead of a letter that takes the place of that visit to deal with the refusal of hospitality. What, then, is hospitality in the Mediterranean world?

D.    Hospitality in the Mediterranean World

Hospitality might be defined as the process by means of which an outsider’s status is changed from stranger to guest (for the definition and what follows see Pitt-Rivers, 1977:94–112). The outsider is “received” and socially transformed from stranger to guest (on “stranger,” see Schutz, 1964; Elliott, 1983 passim). Hospitality, then, differs from entertaining family and friends. The hospitality process is quite crucial, given the human tendency to treat outsiders as simply non-human (the social basis for torture, war, unconcern for distributive justice, racism, genocide etc.). If strangers are not to be eliminated, either physically or socially (see Mt 10:14–23), they have to be “received,” or shown hospitality. The process would have three stages to it: (1.) evaluating the stranger (usually with some test about whether guest status is possible); (2.) the stranger as guest—the liminal phase; (3.) from guest to transformed stranger (at times with another test). Let us consider each phase in turn. (I will make reference to instances of the hospitality process in the Bible in general which I assume will be familiar to most readers of this essay. For more examples from Bible times presented in the Received View fashion, see Sisti, 1967 and Staehlin, 1967).

(1.)    Evaluating the Stranger

The stranger is potentially anything and certainly a threat to the way things are. S/he must be tested as to whether s/he will subscribe to the norms of the community into which s/he comes. The testing, a sort of measuring or stock taking, is undoubtedly to know where the stranger fits into the purity arrangements of the world.

The person deemed capable of receiving hospitality has an intermediary social position between the hostile and mysterious outside world and the interior structure of the community (Pitt-Rivers, 1977:113). The problem then is how to admit a representative of the outside into the purity lines of the community for a while and then allow the outsider to return to his/her proper place without altering the social fabric (on purity lines, see Malina, 1981:122–150). Hospitality necessarily must put the guest in a liminal or marginal position since the guest is an outsider now on the inside, yet not an insider since s/he must return to the outside. Another way of dealing with strangers and the threat they entail is to do away with them (physically: killing, beating, molesting, robbing, bodily removal, i.e. with force; socially: ignoring them so that they must move on, i.e. show signs of aversion; or challenging them for their honor, i.e. insult, mockery etc., so they are humiliated and move on).

Three main points are to be noted here:

(a.). In the ancient (and Mediterranean) world a stranger possessed no standing in law or custom within the visited group; hence it is necessary for him to have a patron in order to gain the protection of the local laws and gods (see Lande, 1977a on patron-client as supplement to failing social institutions; and for a summary overview of research, see Eisenstadt and Roniger, 1980). To offend the protege or client is to offend the protector/patron. The protege/client is embedded in the social space of the patron. Thus the stranger is incorporated only through a personal bond with an established community member. The stranger has only the status of being statusless. There is no presupposition of the universality of humankind or universal brotherhood. There is only the particularity and specificity of the total or partial stranger. The partial stranger is a person received on the basis of kinship or fictive kinship (relative from a distant place, fellow believer, fellow guildsman, fellow worker at a common job), but not on the basis of place of origin, which served in Mediterranean antiquity as a principle of species differentiation (see Bodson, 1982).

However in relation to his patron, the stranger has social standing, i.e. that of guest or client/protege. The status of guest, thus, stands midway between that of hostile stranger and community member. Becoming a guest derives from a practical, ad hoc rather than moral, transformative incorporation into the community.

Since the stranger is potentially anything, he must be tested as to whether he can subscribe to the rules of the new culture. Officials (Josh 2:2) or concerned citizenry (Gen 19:5) might conduct such tests. On the other hand, invasion from the outside might simply be repelled (Mk 5:17 where the Gerasenes ask the stranger, Jesus, to leave, or Lk 9:53 where the Samaritans “would not receive him,” perhaps because he would not be a proper guest “because his face was set toward Jerusalem”). An invitation to speak can be a test (Acts 13:14–15), while letters of recommendation can excuse from a test, although sometimes not (e.g. II and III John; Rom 16:3–16; 1 Thess 5:12–13). Frequently the ritual of foot washing marks the movement from stranger to guest (see Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; notably lacking in Luke 7:36–50). At bottom each community (and neighborhood in larger cities) attempts to be autonomous, with its own standards/customs. Standing achieved in one community, therefore, is not directly transferable to another, nor is status ascribed by one society necessarily recognized in another. The possibility of finding an equivalent standing (even for mutual understanding) may be missing, e.g. to be a Christian priest in a Buddhist country, a south American general in a small town in Iowa, a Hindu Brahman in the Texas hill country, a Galilean craftsman/healer among the Jerusalem urban elite. The test, when given, attempts to assign an acceptable but temporary social location to the stranger.

(b.). To fulfill the role of guest, the stranger must at least understand and follow the conventions which relate to hospitality and which define the behavior expected of him/her. S/he must know how to play the role of guest. Thus the Greek distinction between:

xenoi = strangers who know how to behave as Greek guests; barbaroi = strangers who know nothing at all, not even the language, hence who are totally uncivilized (see Gauthier, 1973, correcting the valuable observations of Benveniste, 1973:71–83).

(c.). The appearance of a stranger in a community where he had neither kin nor friends would itself be a challenge to the community, the invasion of the outside into the social space of the inside. Thus some local riposter (a self-appointed or group-appointed champion) will take up the challenge in the name of the group. If the stranger defeats the champion in the contest, he proves himself better than the whole community, hence is entitled to be honored by the community (not so for barbarians, who do not challenge but combat and seek to annihilate). In the Synoptic tradition, when Jesus sends the Twelve he expects his core disciples to be “received” by honorable persons (Mk 6:11 par.). Should no hospitality be offered, they are to perform the symbolic (and insulting) action of “shaking off the dust on your feet.” After all, honor is gained by all in the community through the visit of an honorable person. On the other hand, a shameful community is not worthy of the presence of honorable visitors.

Three types of strangers thus emerge from this initial step of assessment:

(i.). one who is recognized as better than the best challenger in the community: there is no problem with his precedence in the community.

(ii.). one who is vanquished by the local riposter and thus owes his life/continued presence to his local patron; he is thus attached to the community by the intermediary of his victor.

(iii.). one who has no friends/kin within the community, who is simply ignored (given barbarian status), hence treated as an outlaw who could be despoiled or destroyed with impunity, simply because of his potential hostility.

(2.)    The Stranger as Guest—the Liminal Phase

Since transient strangers lacked customary or legal standing within the visited community, it was imperative that they find a patron, a host. Hosts would be established community members, and through a personal bond with them (something inns cannot offer), the stranger was incorporated as guest or client/protege. To offend the guest is to offend the host, who is protector and patron of the guest (poignantly underscored in the case of Lot, Gen. 19:1–10). Yet such patronage can yield more trouble than honor (e.g. Prov. 6:1).

Considering the various ways in which people of various cultures speak of the infringement of hospitality by host and guest, it seems that “a certain general sense informs them all, entitling us to talk about the law of hospitality in the abstract in contrast to the specific codes of hospitality exemplified in different cultures” (Pitt-Rivers, 1977:109). This sort of general law of hospitality derives from social necessity. “For the same reason that the criminal is said to define the law the essentials of the law of hospitality can best be seen in the actions which constitute its infringement” (ibid.).

A guest infringes the requirements of hospitality:

(a.). By insulting the host or by any show of hostility or rivalry; a guest must honor the host (Jesus eating with sinners neither accuses them of being sinners nor asks them to change: Matt. 9:10; Luke 5:29).

(b.). By usurping the role of the host, e.g. making oneself at home when not yet invited to (in the home of another, Jesus heals when asked: Mark 1:30); taking precedence (see Luke 14:8); giving orders to the dependents of the host (Jesus refuses to command Mary: Luke 10:40); making claims or demands on the host or to demand or take what is not offered (see Luke 7:36–50, where Jesus is the perfect guest; and the rules for travelling disciples: Mark 6:10 and parallels).

(c.). By refusing what is offered, the guest infringes the role of guest. The guest is above all bound to accept food (see Luke 10:18; the directives to disciples for their travels would force them to accept patronage: Mark 6:8 and parallels; see 1 Cor 9:4).

A host infringes the requirements of hospitality:

(a.). By insulting one’s guests or by any show of hostility or rivalry.

(b.). By neglecting to protect one’s guests and their honor. For guests individually are embedded in the host. Thus while fellow guests have no explicit relationship, they are bound to forego hostilities, since they offend their host in the act of offending one another. The host must defend each against the other since both are his guests (thus Paul’s problem at the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor 11:17–34).

(c.). By failing to attend to one’s guests, to grant them the precedence which is their due, to show concern for their needs and wishes or in general to earn good will which guests should show. Note how in Luke 7:36–50 Simon the Pharisee fails on all counts with his guest, Jesus: no foot washing; no kiss; no anointing; no keeping away the sinful woman; the parable in Luke 7:40–41 represents Jesus’ defense of his honor as guest. Finally, failure to offer the best is to denigrate the guest (John 2:10).

While element (a.) is the same for both guest and host, elements (b.) and (c.) are complementaries. This assures that a stranger will rarely, if ever, reciprocate hospitality. Hence its necessity and value (see Matt 25:38–43) among the traditional Jewish works of mercy.

While hospitality does not entail mutual reciprocity between individuals, it can nevertheless be viewed as a reciprocal relationship between communities. Such hospitality to travelling Christians is both urged (see Rom 12:13; 1 Pet 4:9) and much practiced (e.g. Acts 17:7; 21:17; 28:7; Rom. 16:23).

A society such as the first century Mediterranean valued the free circulation of persons between its communities. People travelled, e.g. on pilgrimage, to seek out healing, to collect and distribute money, to attend meetings at central locations, to bring information, news or instruction to others, and the like. Such a society required a law of hospitality: do as you would be done by; receive the stranger so you be well received.

(3.)    From Guest to Transformed Stranger

The stranger-guest will leave the host either as friend or enemy. If as friend, the guest will spread the praises of the host (e.g. 1 Thess 1:9; Phil 4:16), notably to those sending the stranger (e.g. Mark 9:37). If as enemy, the one aggrieved will have to get satisfaction (e.g. III John, see below).

Perhaps it is in the context of hospitality infractions that the meaning of John 1:10, “his own received him not,” might best be understood. Any infringement of the code of hospitality destroys the structure of roles, since it implies an incorporation which has not in fact taken place or a cessation of hostility readily resumed. Failure to return honor or avoid disrespect entitles the person slighted in this way to relinquish his role and revert to the hostility which it suppressed. The sacred quality in the relationship is not removed, but polluted. Once they are no longer host and guest, they are enemies, not strangers. Hence in the social context of the rules of hospitality, the Johannine “his own received him not” clues in the reader to the ongoing conflict and hostility that is to follow. On the other hand, the situation in III John is different.

E.    The Letter of Recommendation

From the foregoing, the function of the letter of recommendation should be apparent. The purpose of the letter is to help divest the stranger of his strangeness, to make him at least only a partial stranger, if not an immediate guest. The person writing a recommendation attests to the stranger bearing it on the basis of the word of honor of the attestor. To reject the recommended stranger is, of course, a challenge to the honor of the recommender. It spurns his honor, and requires an attempt at satisfaction on his part, under pain of being shamed.

III John is a letter of recommendation sent in a world whose paramount values were honor and shame. Honor cannot be achieved or lost without an audience, a public that ascribes or withholds it (see Malina, 1981:25–50). This is why those “private” letters of recommendation in the New Testament (Philemon and III John e.g.) are not exactly private. They would not serve their intended purpose if they were private. In III John the Elder puts his honor on the line again to recommend Demetrius and any others he might send to Gaius. In the process he seeks satisfaction for the dishonor he suffered at the hands of Diotrephes. III John is the Elder’s culturally required attempt at satisfaction. If he kept quiet about Diotrephes’ rejection of his previous recommendation, he would lose his honor. By attempting satisfaction, he retains his honor, but at some cost. The cost in question is the publicity and consequent honor Diotrephes gains by being a discriminating host and patron with power. He becomes a person to be reckoned with.

With III John, we have evidence of unreceptive reaction to Johannine Christianity. Elsewhere I have argued that Johannine Christianity used antilanguage in order to maintain its antisociety (Malina, 1985). Such an antisociety is a metaphorical variant of the real world, of real society. In this view, Diotrephes’ challenge to the Elder will have been one of many reactions to Johannine Christianity, leading to the latter’s ultimate demise as unworkable and unrealistic in the first and second century Mediterranean world.

In sum, as far as the process called “hospitality” is concerned, while nearly all human groups offer “hospitable treatment, reception or disposition” to guests (definition of “hospitality” in Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary), the quality and type of the reception as well as the social definition of “guest” evidence specific differences. For example, in the U.S., hospitality normally refers to entertaining relatives, friends and acquaintances, frequently with the presumption of individual reciprocity in the future; first century Mediterranean hospitality normally refers to hosting a stranger, with the presumption of community reciprocity in the future. These specific differences derive from differences in cultural arrangements and social structure: living one’s personal life indoors (U.S.) versus outdoors (Mediterranean); human encounters as competitive (U.S.) versus agonistic or filled with potential conflict (Mediterranean); type of personality involved, individualistic (U.S.) versus dyadic (Mediterranean); assessment of the general status of strangers, members of the same nation with the same rights and obligations (U.S.), or members of “them,” of the outside, with no enforceable rights in our community (traditional Mediterranean); the purifying functions of money (U.S.) versus honor (Mediterranean); and the like.

In other words, a full, comparative description of hospitality in the U.S. and the first century Mediterranean world entails a description of the salient features of each social system. One reason for this is that hospitality, just as any other discrete piece of socially meaningful behavior, will replicate the core values and value objects of the society in question. Such a description is, of course, out of the question at this point. Instead, and by way of conclusion, Table 2 that follows presents a comparative summary of the burden of this essay, and of the evident insufficiency of the Received View in biblical studies.

Table 2: Comparing III John in the “Received View” and in the Social Science View



    Models and methods are “objective,” psychologizing and based on an unreflective sampling of a single culture, that of the interpreter.

    Modes and methods are “social,” culturally derivative from the social science, i.e. a wider, comparative sampling.

    What requires explanation in III John is:

    What requires explanation in III John is:

    1. church role and rank of persons mentioned;

    1. meaning of social interaction of persons mentioned;

    2. “realia,” such as physical basis for mobility, inns, travel;

    2. meaning of “realia,” described in some comparative, cross-cultural way;

    3. presuppositions: meaning of “religious,” hospitality, recommendation, personal etc.

    3. requisites: definitions of “religious,” hospitality, recommendation, personal etc. in a cross-cultural way.

    Problem: office in earliest Christianity (a problem retrojected from the contemporary church).

    Problem: quality of social interaction on the basis of what is “usual” and “normal” in the culture.

    Method of explanation: multiple paraphrase, i.e. frequently repeated restatement, in slightly different terminology, of what the document purportedly states.

    Method of explanation: presentation of a larger framework in which to insert the “domains of reference” referred to in the document.

    The approach is “that/how” knowledge.

    The approach is “how/why” knowledge.

    Significant questions seen to be posed by the document are often questions deriving from the interpreter’s culture, hence ethnocentric non-questions.

    Significant questions seen to be posed by the document are those relevant to the larger cultural frame within which the document originated.


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Published: November 28, 2014, 11:08 | Comments Off on SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC CRITICISM OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND ITS SOCIAL WORLD – via Uwe Rosenkranz
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